Sunday, December 9, 2018

concert review: Telegraph Quartet

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the City, and not very many had come to Herbst Theatre to hear the Telegraph String Quartet. Even the President of San Francisco Performances, who usually says a little to introduce each concert, wasn't there.

Two composers on the program were Eastern European Jews whose lives were upended by 20th century totalitarianism. This biographical imperative seems to have helped drive their rise from obscurity to some note in the classical field in the last couple of decades. They still have some ways to go, so I was glad to hear them today.

Erwin Schulhoff was Czech, and was probably the most distinguished composer to be an actual casualty of the Nazi Holocaust. But he'd been around for a while, and wrote his Five Pieces in 1923. They're a variety of dances, from waltz to tango to tarantella. The music is harsh and brittle, perfect fare for the Telegraph, sounding a bit like Bartók or a less fragmented Webern, but it also contained a fair share of rhythm and bounce.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was Polish, and fled permanently to Russia when the Wehrmacht hit town. There he became known as Моисей Вайнберг, which transliterates as Moisei Vainberg or Vaynberg, so the form of his name is variable, but Mieczyslaw Weinberg seems to be becoming the preferred form. He also got caught up and nearly executed in the Doctors' Plot, which was one of Stalin's paranoid fantasies. He survived in part due to the sponsorship of his great mentor, Dmitri Shostakovich.

Not surprisingly, his music can sound a lot like his mentor's, and Weinberg's String Quartet No. 6 in E Minor, Op. 35 (1946) turns out to be fabulously good in a Shostakovich mode. It has dark-toned, slowish outer movements and a central Adagio filled with chromatic but intensely lyrical melodies for various solo instruments, frequently accompanied by emphatic pizzicato notes from the others. They're separated by a brief and vehement scherzo (in two nearly indistinguishable parts) and a muted and occasionally squirrely intermezzo. This really is a great quartet in the way that I like difficult modern music to sound.

Also on the program, one 19th-century composer, Antonín Dvořák. (Connection: the elderly Dvořák endorsed the very young Schulhoff to the Prague Conservatory.) The problem is that Dvořák's Op. 51 is relaxed and genial, and I'd have said the Telegraph Quartet doesn't do relaxed and genial. But unlike Kronos, which gave up on music that didn't fit their comfort zone, Telegraph is learning how to play it. This came out quite nicely, rather on the impassioned side and all the spikes sticking out clearly, but not so much as to distort the composition.

I've heard the Telegraph several times in the last couple of years, and they get better literally every time I hear them.

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