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Review: Simόn Bolívar String Quartet at Live at LICA

Chris Satori
Simόn Bolívar String QuartetSimόn Bolívar String Quartet at Live at LICA
Thursday, 5 December 2013
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University,

Reviewed by Sally Ryde

I feared these four musicians would be too young to deliver the exquisite musical experience that only a chamber music ensemble of many years standing can do. I also feared that because the quartet is carved out of Venezuela’s Simόn Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, part of the renowned El Sistema family, its members would be constantly in flux as individuals reached adult age and moved on.

I was pleasantly surprised therefore to learn that the Simόn Bolívar is no longer a youth orchestra (all the kids grew up) and, further, that the orchestra’s string section leaders who comprise the Simόn Bolívar String Quartet have made music together all their lives.

Boy, did it show! It was like a musical octopus: four pairs of arms controlled by a single brain. Young players with bags of enthusiasm and experience - it really doesn't get any better than that.

The first piece of the evening was written by a 17-year-old Felix Mendelssohn who, according to the programme note, already had two string symphonies and his overture to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ behind him. Remarkable! As someone said recently, only if one is a music critic might one believe that he or she must find clever words to describe music. The rest of us can simply enjoy the moment!

The enjoyment we experienced in that Mendelssohn ‘moment’ was enormous. I loved it all but was particularly drawn to the fugal middle section of the slow movement, the theme of which appears again near the end of the finale.

Unfortunately, the final five or more seconds of silence that should have brought the Mendelssohn to a close had to be abandoned by the performers because of the insistence of one or two listeners to ignore the clear indication from the players that despite the fact that they were no longer making any sounds, the piece was not yet finished. Such a shame that some people fail to appreciate that music is a mix of both sounds and silences and that the latter, including their durations, are just as important as the sounds.

Curiously, the lights went up in the Great Hall as the performers took a short break before the second work. This caused enough confusion for a few people to get up and head for the bar. When the quartet suddenly returned to the platform, however, there followed some nimble-footed scrambling as those who had been misled quickly returned to their places.

Their agility was well-rewarded with the performance of the wonderful Shostakovich String Quartet No.8, possibly the best loved of his works for this combination of instruments. Composed in 1960 at a location near Dresden and dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, it is based heavily on the four notes B, C, D and E-flat which notes in the German notation system are known as H, C, D, and Es. Arranged in the order D Es C H, the spoken names of these notes (D S C H) spell out the first part of the German transliteration of the composer’s name (Dimitri Schostakovich).

The DSCH theme recurs throughout the work’s five movements, the first of which sets the motif out in fugal form at the very start. Hauntingly beautiful, its subsequent reappearances in a variety of guises were all ‘moments to be enjoyed’, not analysed with a scholarly pen.

Those of us who would readily have sat through a repeat of the Shostakovich thought that the final item, the Brahms quartet, fine though it was, could have been placed earlier in the programme so that the sounds of Shostakovich would remain fresh in the mind for the journey home.

Incidentally, had it not been for an error in the programme notes (mistakenly giving the name ‘Görlitz’ rather than ‘Gohrisch’ to the place near Dresden in which Shostakovich had been staying), I might not have recalled the similarity between the DSCH motto and a recurring figure in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, composed 20 years earlier in the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz. Indeed such is the kinship of the tonalities of the two pieces that the opening bars of the first movement of the Shostakovich can be played simultaneously against the beginning of the fifth movement of the Messiaen with little or no sense of inappropriate dissonance.

S. Ryde

Artists’ recording website:

Concert Programme:
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A minor, Op.13
Shostakovich: String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110
Brahms: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51

Tickets were priced (web advance):  Adults £21.50, Concessions £18.50, Young person/student £7.50

Future musical events at Live at LICA: Live at LICA ‘What’s On