Beshrew me if I ever listen to an octet again without having the players in the room.

Last night, I heard a recital by the Moscow Chamber Music Academy, a group of young musicians so new to the professional circuit that their single CD was also the evening’s program. And they have an axe to grind. Here is what Igor Bobovich, their cellist and founder, has to say:  “The purpose of this ensemble was to explore the idea of symbiosis between Russian and European schools. . . . The basic musical education in Russia is at the top international level, and this education consistently produces technically well-equipped instrumentalists. The situation in the West is changing with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Many Russian stars are teaching in the West today. And the current generations of young European musicians are technically equal to their Eastern colleagues. In Russia, there is [the] opposite, a kind of musical stagnation. Teachers remain faithful to the old interpretative ideals, continuing to teach in the same way as 30 years ago….” Comments? Juilliard? Peabody? Indiana? Curtis?

I let the Academy’s program note distract me.

Beshrew me if I ever listen to an octet again without having the players in the room. A string quartet is comparatively easy to listen to. You can appreciate it in the concert hall or your living room. The second violin supports the shenanigans of the superior first violin; the cello lives in the lower depths whence plaintive wailings, sometimes with unspeakable beauty, emerge; and the viola fills in the gaps while musicians in the audience make up yet another viola joke: “Hey, what’s the difference between road kill and a dead violist? You can eat the road kill.” As you listen, you know pretty much where you are, who’s speaking, who’s replying, who gave the last cue, who’s carrying the melody.

As I watched the octet last night plummeting through the sheer, fantastic fall of Mendelssohn’s Octet, Opus 20, a sixteen year-old’s fantasy of irresistible imagination, I saw the impossibility of fully listening without seeing the players. Balletic, the perfect give-and-go, the adept team of pick pockets, the perpetual motion of the three-card monte mountebank. Four violins, two violas, two celli. The leader is still the leader, but he passes the baton with a nod because the second violist (the second!) is about to take charge. Octaves full of scales pass from the top of the violin to the open bottom string of the cello, and it happens so fast that the eye struggles to follow the bowing across the stage. That’s when it strikes you: stereo is not good enough. Even fine sound separation, even recording on separate channels won’t be good enough. From the stage, you can see the sound move in its Mendelssohnian wave from left to right, and the ear rejoices as each of the eight gets his turn.

There are other intricacies, too. That which started with the first viola now emerges in the cello even while the third and fourth violins are already on to something else, a something that someone somewhere will pick up like a peach dropped from its branch and picked up by a casual passerby who inspects it for bruises before tasting the juice.

Ah. That was fun.

And beshrewed or not, on the way out the door, I bought the CD.

Cheers. Haven’t you always wanted to use ‘beshrew’ in a sentence?

One thought on “Rhapsodic

  1. Peter
    Thanks for this on Kollwitz. I had not realized that her family had been so decimated–like lots of other families, of course, but the latter did not turn it into art, usually. You are really getting around!
    Nancy D.

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