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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 3:36 am | Fair 39º


Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Music Club Pairs Brahms with Shostakovich

The Santa Barbara Music Club will continue its 2012-13 season with a free “Afternoon Concert” at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Central Library, 40 E. Anapamu St.

Just two works grace the program, both masterpieces: Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in A-Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 100 played by Philip Ficsor on violin and Betty Oberacker on piano, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 in F-Minor, Opus 73 performed by the Channel Islands String Quartet (Irving Weinstein and Ted Lucas on violins, Diana Ray-Goodman on viola and Ervin Klinkon on cello).

Brahms wrote his Sonata No. 2 in 1886, while he was vacationing in the Swiss town of Thun. He was happy and content, moving freely among a loose circle of friends — not to be confused with a circle of loose friends — who would drop by for a visit, spend just the right amount of time with him and then move on.

The sonata is his shortest for the combination, and, after a somewhat agitated and disquieting opening, is benignly lyrical and placid.

The party line on the 20th-century string quartet has been that Béla Bartók trumps everybody else and is the only true successor to Ludwig van Beethoven. As one who admires some works of Bartók very much but who loathes his six string quartets, I am delighted to note that the string quartets of Shostakovich give every sign of having overtaken those of Bartók on our concert programs — as they have long replaced them in the hearts of audiences.

Bartók’s problem was that he was a victim of the 20th century with no sense of irony. In totalitarian societies, in societies ruled by the lowest common denominator, irony — which only means saying one thing and meaning the opposite — irony is the only guardian of the individual soul.

Shostakovich was the quintessential ironic composer (if you want the literary equivalent, I suggest you look into Aleksandr Zinovyev’s vast and hilarious 1976 satire, The Yawning Heights). Shostakovich’s career is a perfect illustration of Richard Rorty’s warning that irony is unsuitable for public discourse.

The composer got into trouble with the Soviet authorities again and again, because his big public works — symphonies, operas, concertos — were steeped in irony, and the Stalinists, who didn’t get the subtleties of the joke but who nevertheless sensed that the composer was making fun of them, wanted to shut him down. Eventually, with the Fifth Symphony, the orchestral works became darker and less ironic. In spiritual self-defense, Shostakovich turned to chamber music — above all, the string quartet, writing 15 of them, one masterpiece after another — where he and his irony could usually cruise along below the official radar.

After his lighthearted and witty Symphony No. 9 — a lapse into his cheeky undergraduate style — was censured by the Soviet hacks, he composed the String Quartet No. 3 and it was premiered in 1946. The work is in five movements, which originally bore the traditional titles: I. Allegretto, II. Moderato con moto, III. Allegro non troppo, IV. Adagio and V. Moderato.

For the premiere, just in case someone in power was listening who might accuse him of “formalism” or “elitism,” he made up pseudo-descriptive titles that made the quartet into a wordless history of the war: I. “Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm,” II. “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation,” III. “Forces of war unleashed,” IV. “In memory of the dead,” and V. “The eternal question: Why? And for what?”

The first two movements are roguish, cynical fun; the third and fifth are profoundly harrowing; the fourth is heartbreakingly beautiful — whether you call it an “adagio” or “In Memory of the Dead.”

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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