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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 7

Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet Takes on Shostakovich

by L. H. Tiffany Hsieh / April 1, 2010

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Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc

Writing 15 string quartets was Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s way of escaping the socialist-realist ideology imposed by Stalin at the time. The works, conceived at the height of his career between 1938 and 1974, speak to the composer’s free imagination without official scrutiny. And now, the Canadian Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet has recorded its own interpretation of the complete cycle, a step that one founding member described as “unavoidable for quartets today.”

Violist Jean-Luc Plourde, along with three New Brunswickers, formed the Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet, named after the great Acadian violinist at the University of Moncton in 1988. Personnel changes occurred in 1992, when violinist Hibiki Kobayashi joined the group, and again in 2001, when two brothers, violinist Brett and cellist Ryan Molzan, came on board.

This recording signifies a milestone for this virtuosic quartet, and not only for the players but also in the history of Canadian music. The ensemble’s new album of Shostakovich string quartets marks the foursome’s first recording together and is also the first Canadian recording of the complete cycle.

“It’s a big statement for us as a quartet,” Plourde said. “We know each other better now; we have an idea of what everybody likes and doesn’t like.”

The idea to record all 15 string quartets came about after a close friend of the Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet approached the XXI-21 label. “At the time, we were just learning the pieces quietly one by one and obviously we had played all of them before,” Plourde said.

While the string quartets were recorded between February 2007 and August 2009 at the Françoys-Bernier concert hall at Domaine Forget in Quebec City, Plourde explained that all the group members had been working on the project for the last five or six years, in part thanks to the quartet’s residency at Laval University’s string faculty since 2005.

“We could not have possibly done a project like this without the residency,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of work. It’s a project of great value we believe in totally. So in the meantime, you can’t just pursue a normal career of concerts. All we were doing for five years was Shostakovich quartets.”

Looking back, Plourde said the group first became immersed in Shostakovich’s string quartets when they tackled his piano quintet. “We thought it was such a deep, intense, meaningful, and dark piece of music. That was long before we did the 15 quartets, of course,” he said, chuckling.

“When we all committed ourselves to doing this project, we thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be dark for years to come.’ But living with this music we felt that it was not like that at all. We had a great time doing the research on the pieces and the composer’s life, trying to figure out the sound—the appropriate sound—for the music, and trying to incorporate what we think of the pieces today in front of the microphone.

“We were trained in Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart: a sort of nice European sound. To explore this cycle, the first thing was for this quartet to explore many sound possibilities that we really hadn’t had a chance to do before.”

For example, Plourde described the different emotions and colours found in the 15 string quartets, 10 of which are written in the major and five of which are wrtten in the minor tonalities. They are more intense overall than the pieces with the “nice European sound” the musicians were trained in.

“The expression in this music is not a self-involved, for-your-own-ego kind of thing. It’s not ‘I want to do this kind of rubato here’; it’s what the music calls for, and the music is always kind of repressed and always with tension,” he explained.

“We were confidently exploring all the time. The goal was to try, [when recording], to play together in the same direction—whatever it was.”

Often compared with Bartók’s six string quartets, Shostakovich’s cycle of 15 is considered one of the greats in 20th-century music and the Mount Everest for string quartets. In the capable hands of the Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet, the quartets were recorded in random order over sessions lasting three to four days at a time. The music is largely pessimistic to be sure, especially when heard in one sitting, but the players have produced tones that are melodic, lyrical, and strikingly humouresque at times.

From the Beethoven-like first quartet and the passionate fourth to the meditative and introspective 15th, the Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet have given a mature and astonishing reading that is expressive and full of surreal colours throughout. With clear articulation and spot-on intonation, they take listeners through unsettling passages with ease, shading each turn of tension with subtle nuances.

While the music of Shostakovich lends itself to a certain degree of shock value, the Arthur-LeBlanc Quartet embraces the composer’s haunting harmonics with an impassioned and natural flair. Their sound is astounding without being in your face.

In hindsight, Plourde said, the group feels blessed to have had the chance to complete a monumental project with few difficulties. “Learning Shostakovich’s quartet cycle is similar to learning a language. As you immerse yourself in it for weeks, sometimes months at a time, your life starts to revolve around the music; you have themes constantly going over in your head and you begin to understand the deeper meanings behind the words,” he explained.

Throughout the process, the quartet tried to get a glimpse of the context in which the pieces were written. “We tried our best to get a sense of how those times were and to understand Shostakovich’s journey,” said Plourde. “The cycle obviously reflects his experience. Our limited knowledge of how life was, of the fear in which people lived, and the dangers of being an artist, showed us that these pieces have a very different place in the string quartet literature. They are more than just the mere reflection of those who lived through it. They are actually the sounds of those whose art was an escape. It could have cost them their lives.”

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