Few concert settings are as beautiful as St Martin’s Church in Colchester. A deconsecrated 15th-century church, it served as the venue for a concert of Shostakovich’s Third and Fifteenth String Quartets, played by the Gould Quartet (named after their first violinist Thomas Gould), part of the Roman River Festival. For a town with not many classical concerts, this was quite a treat. With candlelight illuminating the church hall, the audience seated around the string quartet and the deeply emotional music of Shostakovich’s string quartets, this was an experience to remember. The free vodka might have helped, too.

© Thomas Gould
© Thomas Gould

Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 3 is one of those pieces of his with a history as rich as the music. Written soon after his badly received (for it did not portray the joy of winning the war accurately enough) Symphony no. 9, Shostakovich’s intent was made clear by the programme he originally included with the music. Movement 1 was given the programmatic subtitle “Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm”, Movement 2 “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation”, Movement 3 “The forces of war are unleashed”, Movement 4 “Homage to the dead”, and the last movement “The eternal questions: why? and for what purpose?” Although he soon withdrew these subtitles, they remain an important testament to the nature of the piece.

The Gould Quartet’s awareness of Shostakovich’s intentions was evident not only in the introductory speech, but in the playing itself. A brilliant violinist, Thomas Gould led his quartet in a passionate performance. The first movement starts off rather innocently, played with a lightness of touch by all the musicians, but it was in the second movement that the quality of the Gould Quartet really emerged. Its angular rhythms and off-beat harmonies serve as a taster for the third movement, a true scherzo. This movement was played at an impressively fast pace by the Gould Quartet, and its effect was all the more powerful because of a smoke machine that went off right at the start, covering the quartet in smoke and adding to the ominous nature of the scherzo. The fourth movement, much more subdued than the previous ones, was one of the highlights of the evening. A true “homage for the dead”, it is a deeply moving lament, and the first violin solo was played extraordinarily beautifully by Gould. The fifth movement contains some stunning melodies played by all the members of the quartet, and their performance did not lead to the question its subtitle would suggest, but rather a sense of tranquillity.

The String Quartet no. 15 is one of the last works Shostakovich composed, written at a time when he knew he was dying. It is one of his bleakest and most uncompromising works, and unlike no. 3, it did not have a political agenda, only a personal one. No. 15 has no scherzo, no little ironic jokes in the music; it is a remarkably calm piece for Shostakovich, but perhaps this makes it all the more haunting.

The weather helped set the scene for this quartet, as right when the Gould Quartet started playing loud thunder was heard, a rather fitting and unsettling accompaniment to the music. The Gould Quartet’s warm sound suited the piece well, especially because they were still able to bring across the despair of the music. The second movement is one of the most impressive Shostakovich wrote, which each instrument in turn playing one note in a twelve-note sequence, rising from a whisper to a scream. The effect of this is quite startling, and the following waltz does nothing to reduce the underlying melancholy. When the last notes of the string quartet died out, it was this row of notes and its impressive execution by the Gould Quartet that lingered in my mind, and haunted me for the rest of the evening.