BRUNSWICK – It is not very often that the tough audiences at any of the Bowdoin International Music Festival concerts stand and cheer, but they did just that for the Ying Quartet’s performance of the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major (Op. 117) at Studzinski Recital Hall Wednesday night.

The Shostakovich quartet is a strange animal indeed, emerging from the composer’s guilt and self-doubt occasioned by his being cajoled by Gorbachev into joining the Communist party for the first time in 1962. While heaped with honors, he burned his first effort at the Ninth Quartet (one of the few times he even modified any of his works) and spent the next two years either rebuilding it from scratch or writing a new one.

I favor rewriting, since the work as it now exists reminds one of Prokofiev’s “Visions Fugitives” which are based on scenes of childhood, as Shostakovich said of his destroyed manuscript.

The quartet consists of five movements, played without pause. The first four movements alternate between fast and slow. All contain interrelated motifs that are developed in the long fifth movement, which can only be called demonic in its speed and intensity.

It also contains a lovely cello song accompanied by malevolent buzzing on the other strings — Shostakovich among his critics?

The Ying Quartet, in residence for the festival, not only negotiated the fiendish difficulties of this piece with ease, but also constructed a musical edifice that was equally compelling.

Thoughtful virtuosity also characterized the performance by pianist Boris Slusky of Chopin’s “Polonaise Fantasy” (Op. 61).

While just as exciting as the more familiar works based on the Polish processional dance, the “Fantasy” is more of a meditation on the form itself. Some sections, in their polyphonic layering of themes, even seem a little academic, which is a word I seldom use about Chopin.

The word “academic” brings us to Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17. Despite the best efforts — and they were of the highest caliber — of Maria Schleuning, violin, Rosemary Elliot, cello, and Elinor Freer, piano, the piece sounds like husband Robert on one of his many bad days.

There is a promising melodic imitation of one of John Field’s waltz-nocturnes in the andante, but it goes nowhere except for a pleasant recapitulation on the cello. The semi-fugues in the final movement were also engaging, but all-in-all the trio seems as circumscribed as everyday life must have been for a woman of Clara’s talent.

Wednesday’s concert, which was SRO, was the first of the Upbeat! series at Studzinski Hall, continuing each week through Aug. 4. For tickets and further information, call 207-725-3895. 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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