Ensemble 360

Crucible Playhouse, Sheffield
Thursday 23 November 2023, 7.15pm

£14 UC, PIP & DLA
£5 Students & Under 35s

Past Event
String players of Ensemble 360

HAYDN String Quartet Op.20 No.2 (25’)
SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No.8 (23’)
TCHAIKOVSKY String Quartet No.3 (36’) 

This celebration of Russian string quartets includes perhaps the best-known of Shostakovich’s monumental quartets, as well as Tchaikovsky’s profoundly moving, complex and heartfelt Third Quartet.  

These are preceded by a sublime work by Haydn; a stunning example of why the composer is now considered by many to be the father of the modern string quartet. 

Please note the change from the previously advertised programme. 

HAYDN Joseph, String Quartet Op.20 No.2

Capriccio. Adagio 
Minuet. Allegretto 
Fuga a quattro soggetti 

By the time Haydn composed his six Op.20 String Quartets, in 1772, he had developed an innovative mastery of the form. In terms of novel designs and textures, these quartets are truly remarkable. Musicologist Donald Francis Tovey, writing about the Op.20 Quartets as a whole, described them as follows: ‘Every page of the six quartets of Op.20 is of historic and aesthetic importance … there is perhaps no single … opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much’. He and others have argued convincingly that in this set of quartets – and the Op.33 set that followed nine years later – Haydn single-handedly defined what the medium of the quartet was capable of achieving. 


The first movement of Op.20 No.2 opens with the main theme on the cello, playing above the accompanment by the viola, and closely shadowed by the second violin, while the first violin plays nothing for the first six bars of the piece. In the development section, cello and first violin seem engaged in a kind of musical combat, while the movement almost fizzles out on a pianissimo cadence. After an austere unison opening, the slow movement, in C minor (itself quite unusual in a major key work), is again notable for the way in which the main ideas are shared between the parts, with the cello again taking a lead with the melodic ideas while the other strings play hushed semiquavers. But Haydn soon turns this movement into a turbulent musical drama – including violent contrasts between loud and soft – before introducing a gentler theme in E flat major on the first violin, accompanied by smooth quavers in the second violin and more animated, complex figuration in the viola. This movement leads without interruption into the Minuet, back in the home key of C major, but full of chromatic colouring, rhythmic ambiguities and unusual drones. The fugal finale on multiple themes is marked ‘sempre sotto voce’ (always hushed) – until the final outburst of the main fugue theme brings the work to its conclusion. This is another most unusual feature of this remarkable piece – a work of great beauty and power that is positively bristling with inventiveness. 


© Nigel Simeone 

SHOSTAKOVICH Dmitri, String Quartet No.8

Allegro molto 

Shostakovich composed the Eighth Quartet while staying at a ministerial guest-house in Gohrisch, situated in the mountainous region of former East Germany known as the ‘Saxon Switzerland’, near Dresden. He wrote the work down in just three days, 12–14 July 1960, and the first performance followed soon afterwards, on 2 October 1960 in the Leningrad Glinka Hall, played by the Beethoven Quartet. Dedicated ‘to the victims of fascism and war’, it is based almost entirely on Shostakovich’s autobiographical motif D-S-C-H (the notes D, E flat, C and B) and also includes self-quotations from several works, including the First, Fifth and Eighth Symphonies and the Second Piano Trio. 


To what extent should this work be considered autobiographical? Shostakovich leaves such a potent trail of clues that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it is. On 19 July 1960, a week after finishing the quartet, he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘I reflected that if I die someday, then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: “Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet”.’ 


In five linked movements, the quartet begins with the four instruments playing a brooding version the DSCH motif in imitation, starting with the cello. Quotations from the First and Fifth Symphonies are woven into the texture before the mood changes suddenly for the second movement: a violent Allegro molto that quotes from the Jewish theme in the finale of the Second Piano Trio. The third movement restores some feeling of calm before the terrifying eruption of the fourth movement, in which a three-note repeated idea is hammered out over bleak sustained notes. This is followed by the quotation of a song from the Russian Revolution (‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison’) which had been sung at Lenin’s funeral. Apart from the DSCH motif, the last movement has no significant quotations, but the contrapuntal textures move towards a final climax before the music settles uneasily in the work’s home key of C minor.  


© Nigel Simeone 

TCHAIKOVSKY Pyotr Ilyich, String Quartet No.3

String Quartet in E flat minor, Op.30
Andante sostenuto – Allegro moderato
Allegro vivo e scherzando
Andante funebre e doloroso ma con moto
Finale. Allegro non troppo e risoluto 

Tchaikovsky wrote his third and last string quartet in 1876, dedicating it to the memory of the violinist Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875). Though Czech, born and trained in Prague, Laub taught the violin at the Moscow Conservatory from 1866 to 1874. Tchaikovsky loved his playing, calling him ‘the best violinist of our time’ and Laub led the first performances of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets. 

Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet is in the most unusual key of E flat minor, lending much of the work a pervasive quality of melancholy. After a first movement that is stern and serious – and a magnificently constructed musical argument starting with a darkly lyrical slow introduction– the second movement is lighter and brighter, a kind of Scherzo, mixing charm with some spiky surprises and harmonic quirks. The slow movement is a searing lament propelled by the remorseless tread of a funeral march, with a contrasting idea that recalls Russian Orthodox chant. According to Tchaikovsky himself, many of the audience wept openly at the first performance of this heartrending memorial. The finale maintains the serious mood, but it does so with music that is vigorous and classically proportioned, interrupting the flow for moments of tragic reflection before heading to a much brighter conclusion that finally affirms the sunnier key of E flat major. 

© Nigel Simeone