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REVIEW: La Jolla Music Society winter season-opener offers fresh takes on established traditions

San Diego Union-Tribune

Lukas Shulze

October 10, 2022


At the opening of the La Jolla Music Society’s winter season in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Saturday, the Apollon Musagète String Quartet delivered a concert that offered revisions to some conventionally held truths.

Fresh takes on established traditions were there at the outset. To begin with, all the members of the quartet other than the cellist stand. The resulting effect, in their thoughtful reading of three fugues from Bach’s “Kunst der Fuge” (Art of the Fugue), was literally to have lines made flesh, as the probing and discursive counterpoint took on a dynamic physicality and visual drama.

There is a time-honored, noble sport in the arrangement of this work — Bach’s last, and unfinished, masterpiece. The instrumentation is unspecified, and countless ensembles have offered versions of it. The three fugues (Bach here uses the term “contrapunctus”) chosen by the Apollon Musagète were a perfect exegesis of Bach’s contrapuntal métier: Contrapunctus No. 1 is an exposition of the basic subject that animates the entire collection of fugues, No. 4 inverts the theme, and No. 9 nestles the principal theme in a virtuosic, humor-filled fugue that begins on an entirely different subject altogether.

The Apollon Musagète String Quartet has a silken sound and a natural intimacy and synchrony, with clairvoyant cueing and communication along interpersonal channels that have been polished since the group’s founding in 2006, and its members rendered the dense counterpoint with clarity and purpose.

The second chance to reconsider old notions came in Schubert’s Quartet in B-flat, D. 36. This piece dates from 1812, when the composer was 15. Schubert’s early death at 31 is, in several ways, more heartbreaking than Mozart’s at 35. Works from his last several years have the palpable quality of tragic lateness, and when he died, he may well have been the youngest “old” composer we know of.

His early chamber pieces, with a few exceptions, are often dismissed as inchoate, student essays, but the Apollon made an impressive case for this quartet as deserving a more prominent place in the repertoire than it has had. While the melodies of the mature Schubert have yet to take shape, there is a startling (and downright mischievous) approach to form and content: early materials seem especially innocent, even static, though this turns out to be a colossal ruse, as later plunges into chromatic darkness and wild contrapuntal wanderings make clear that what seems like a student piece is nothing of the kind.

The Apollon maximized every rhetorical extreme with a deep catalogue of perfectly chosen, collective approaches to bowing and physical gesture and sudden changes of tempo and affect. Schubert’s piece, surely a commentary on the genre, its heroes, and his budding self-awareness, were seen, and played, through a sophisticated lens of biography and historicity.

A critical debate has existed for years regarding Shostakovich’s G minor piano quintet. Shostakovich’s work remains so entangled with its reception by the Soviet regime that the alternating approval and opprobrium his music received in his own country have become an unfortunate (and inappropriate) barometer of musical substance and authenticity in ours.

The quintet’s long popularity with audiences, its immediate praise from the Stalinist machine (and withering assessment by Prokofiev) have painted this piece as an example of sycophantic aesthetic propaganda. The folly of this idea was made evident by the version presented by the Apollon Musagète and La Jolla Music Society favorite Garrick Ohlsson, with a treatment that emphasized the quintet’s powerful brutality and midcentury constructivism.

The first movement — a prelude and fugue — features heavy, percussive block piano chords counterposed with turbulent, churning string masses. Shostakovich knew Bach’s music well (and composed a set of preludes and fugues that pay tribute to “The Well-tempered Clavier”), though his counterpoint is intentionally thorny, with non-functional motivic loops played with an appropriately heavy hand by pianist Ohlsson.

The second movement is driving and mechanical. The Apollon Musagète’s textures switched easily and impressively between the bumptious rhythmic ostinati and delicate, atmospheric harmonic effects answered by Ohlsson’s deft upper-register playing.

Throughout, the players combined a remarkable unity — of grim, apocalyptic vision and dysfunction in their reading, and precision of touch and suppleness in their ensemble playing. They managed, ultimately, to get at the shocking emotional inversion of stability and danger that lives in this work, in the final moments of placidity and peace with which the quintet ends, now heard as a terrible indictment of Shostakovich’s 1940 world.

Schulze is a freelance writer.