On Wednesday 13th October 2021 the first programme in our 2021 Season was given by the Astaria String Quartet: Shulah Oliver – violin and leader; Kelly McCusker – violin; Kate Bickerdike – viola, and Sean K. Gilde – cello. An audience of 55 was present. Shulah told us that the quartet were proud that their first music club post-lockdown gig was in the historic Meeting Room at Howgills. Her announcements for each item in the varied programme brimmed with enthusiasm and helpful information, and set a standard which we hope will be matched in later concerts. The quartet’s playing embraced the technical challenges with zest. She compared the late Haydn Op. 77 quartets with their near contemporary Beethoven equivalents in the Op. 18 set with Beethoven eliding into Haydn and vice-versa.
The first half ended with two quartet transcriptions by Dmitri Shostakovich (whose 15 string quartets are one of the most significant and challenging written during the 20th century) of two pieces which encompassed the Stalinist challenges of his career in reverse order. The Elegy took the aria in which the anti-heroine of the opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District confesses to the murder of her lover. The opera had been a success d’estime for two years before Stalin saw a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow … an editorial in Pravda, ‘muddle instead of music’, authorised if not written by the Great Leader went for the composer’s jugular. By contrast, Polka was the hit of the full-length ballet The Age of Gold, premiered by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in 1930, while the composer was in his mid-twenties. The quartet transcription highlighted the slides and off-pitch moments of the xylophone solo in the popular orchestral suite from the ballet. Astaria played with relish punctuated by laughter.
After a ‘dry’ interval, came the Dvorak Tenth Quartet, Op. 51. Shulah told us that this mid-period quartet made a welcome change from the familiar excellence of Dvorak’s later ‘American’ quartet. In fact the publishers welcomed the integration of Slavonic themes with the then traditional four movement structure of the string quartet. The second movement featured the dumka, with its minor/major duality, which turned the movement almost into a scherzo with its vivace ending. The Romanza third movement restored calm and with the allegro assai, the Astaria Quartet brought a rousing end to our first concert of the season.
All in all a joyous occasion. As Henry Hall was wont to announce on the BBC in the 1930s, ‘Here’s to the Next Time!’.
NEXT CONCERT: Wednesday 10th November 2021
Amy Roberts (oboe) and Gamal Khamis (piano)
Grovlez, Musgrave, Debussy, Poulenc, Messiaen, Handel, Bach, Saint-Saens
Live Music in Congenial Surroundings: Experience the Magic, You’re All Most Welcome!
Mervyn Miller, Letchworth Music Committee