The string players of Ensemble 360 are not, in the conventional sense of the words, a string quartet. Part of an ensemble of eleven instrumentalists, the vast majority of their public performances are in music scored for a whole range of other combinations.
Nevertheless, in their ‘quartet’ guise they hold their own against many other performers in this repertoire, and their concert of Russian music by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and, erm, Haydn proved triumphantly that for flair, imagination and intensity of feeling they will take some beating.
For an obviously ‘box office’ composer, Tchaikovsky’s string quartets occupy a fairly obscure place in the standard repertoire. The more conventional first quartet, whose slow movement moved Tolstoy to tears, surfaces now and then, but the other two completed quartets hardly ever appear in recital. His Third String Quartet is dominated by a mood of lamentation; the Andante funebre e doloroso ma con moto slow movement is dedicated to the memory of Ferdinand Laub – “the best violinist of our time” in Tchaikovsky’s own words –
and in the hands of Ensemble 360’s players, it was a searing lament, with a remorselessly funereal tread, interrupted only by chords reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant, under which the second violin voices a hushed priestly monotone.
Lamentation was also one of the keynotes of the central work in the evening’s programme. Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, with inevitable ambiguity, could be regarded as Shostakovich’s human response to seeing the ruins of Dresden (and hence the work’s dedication “to the victims of fascism and war”) and/or as his own personal statement of survival, via extensive musical self-quotation, in a society where that could never be taken for granted.
This performance was the high point of the night, from the brooding, haunted opening, where the D-S-C-H motto crawls crab-wise through the textures, to the hysterical screaming of the fourth movement, before we reach an exhausted close. The cheers and foot-stamping, after long moments of anguished stillness at the end, told its own story: a masterpiece, handled with total conviction by these musicians.