The Library of Congress is known for its provocative concert series, but Thursday night’s performance by the Keller String Quartet — a world-class outfit from Hungary with a gorgeous, hall-filling sound — may have been one of the most intriguing of the season. Focusing on three monumental but intensely personal Russian quartets, the Keller showed just how intimately entwined the pieces were with one another, and with the vast cultural consciousness they share. But this wasn’t some academic exercise in music history — it seemed to throw open a window into the composing mind itself.
The evening opened boldly with the strange and almost hallucinatory String Quartet No. 3 by Alfred Schnittke. German-born but Russian to his bones, Schnittke delighted in laying bare his musical roots, drawing freely on other composers in his own protean and fiercely original work. And true to form, the quartet’s opening eight bars contain no less than a quote from a Stabat Mater by Lassus, the theme from Beethoven’s monumental Grosse Fuge Op. 133 and the four notes that Shostakovich used as a musical “signature” in his own works — all of which crash and slide and transform into each other with passionate imagination over the next 20 minutes. That may sound gimmicky, but there’s nothing superficial in Schnittke’s quartet, no hint of cheap pastiche: It’s an exploration of musical identity and a work of exhilarating depth and power.
Part of that power came from the Keller players themselves, who brought such intensity to the work that it prompted a standing ovation. They followed with an equally weighty work, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110. One of the most personal, pathos-filled and impossible-to-forget works of the 20th century, it’s a masterpiece of anguish, terror (a barely suppressed shriek seems to run through it) and, ultimately, hope. It needs a delicate balance of compassion and feral bite to make it work, and the Keller brought it off to snarling perfection.
As if to counterbalance all that 20th-century angst, the evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s sweeping Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11. It’s a heart-gladdening thing, full of soaring lyricism and ecstatic triumph, with barely a cloud as far as the eye can see. But far from just contrasting with the Schnittke and the Shostakovich, it seemed to deepen their meaning and complete some complex whole — and brought the evening to a satisfying close.
Finally, may we offer quick praise to the unsung author of the evening’s program notes? These are generally a chore to read, padded with Historic Facts About the Composer, venues the performers have previously played and dullish thumb-twiddling on sonata form. But David Plylar, a music specialist at the Library, writes with refreshing thoughtfulness and insight — a real contribution to the concert experience.
Brookes is a freelance writer.