REVISITING ‘OLD WORLD’ CHAMBER MUSIC
Kopelman Quartet, Works by Borodin, Brahms and Shostakovich,Vancouver Playhouse, November 9, 2010.
We see so many highly projected, jet-set string quartets these days that one can easily forget the model of chamber music as warm, understanding discourse between civilized and humble musicians. The Kopelman Quartet takes us back in spirit to the ‘golden age’ of Russian quartet playing, dating from the formation of the Beethoven and Borodin quartets in the late 1940’s. This is when such legendary artists as David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich were just coming into their own, eventually to become professors at the Moscow Conservatory. The ensemble came together only recently (2002), each member having performed for many decades with the elite Moscow chamber ensembles after initial studies at the Conservatory. Mikhail Kopelman, was in fact the leader of the Borodin Quartet for a quarter-century.
What immediately distinguishes this quartet is their warm, full, and expressive sound. This is ‘big’ quartet playing that exposits a work methodically and deliberatively and shows no fear in digging into the emotional core of the music. By current standards, the ensemble’s sound may be slightly heavy, their articulation occasionally too rigid, and their blend not always fully exact, but what is never in doubt is their ‘earthy’ commitment to express what the music has to say. This is what made this concert a very satisfying experience.
We started on familiar terrain, with Borodin’s First String Quartet. It is wonderful to hear Russians play their own composers, since they understand the expressive flow of these works so well. The Kopelman’s gave a very intelligent, well-paced performance, rich in feeling, though truthfully even they were not able to hide the excessive amount of repetition in the writing. Some regard this work as a neglected masterpiece but, for me, it does not compare to the more fluent Second Quartet. Fortunately, we heard the famous ‘nocturne’ from this latter work as an encore.
After a beautifully aware treatment of a recently-discovered (early) work of Shostakovich, Elegie and Polka for String Quartet, the major event of the evening was the Brahms Second Quartet, Op. 51. All three Brahms quartets are masterpieces because they so ingeniously combine structural complexity with lyrical flow; the second is possibly the softest and most wistful of them. From the slow tempo for the opening movement, the Kopelman’s certainly captured the melancholy in the work but they also gave it a structural weight and force that was uncommon. I thought that this approach might be too heavy at first, but it paid dividends. As we progressed to the final two movements, the intensity and concentration created was remarkable – and what mystery they found in the third movement. The strong final movement put everything into perspective, propelled with full emotional weight and fire to its conclusion. A powerful and revealing performance!
It seems strange to refer to this quartet of four mature artists as ‘young’, but they have only played together for eight years. I have no doubt that this is the best concert that the Kopelman Quartet has given the Friends of Chamber Music thus far.
© Geoffrey Newman 2010