Recycling Shostakovich and Beethoven

In Avignon last week I was fortunate enough to catch two of the concerts in a cycle of the Shostakovich Quartets by the young French Debussy Quartet.

Any cycle of these magnificent works is an important event. But there are two particular reasons why the Avignon cycle is worth commenting on, quite apart from the excellent performances by these talented young players. First, the cycle was played on three consecutive evenings in three different venues. Like my local city of Norwich, Avignon is blessed with a surfeit of historic buildings which can be used for concerts. The organisers of the cycle, the enterprising L'Opéra-théâtre d'Avignon, took full advantage of his by combining wonderful music-making with privileged visits to architecturally important buildings in this wonderful and civilized city, which in the 14th century was the capital of the Christian world, and home to the Popes.

The first evening's performances were in the Galerie Vernet of the Musée Calvet among the art treasures. The next night's the cycle visited the Chapelle des Pénitents blancs with its 17th century facade, which is now a permanent Avignon Festival venue. The final venue was the 18th century Chapelle de l'Oratoire, an extraordinary performing space with vertical dimensions exceeding the horizontal, and really excellent acoustics apart from the occasional traffic noise. I was fortunate to attend concerts in both the Chapelle des Pénitents blancs and the Chapelle de l'Oratoire.

The second unusual feature of this peripatetic Shostakovich cycle was that the three evenings were each divided into 'mini concerts', with separate tickets (and often a different audience) for each. The first two evenings each consisted of two 'mini concerts', with the first starting at 7.00pm. The last evening was a marathon of three concerts, starting with Quartet No 6 at 7.00, and ending with the final quartet at 10.45! I was in the Chapelle de l'Oratoire for Quartets No 2 and 15 in that late evening finale. The final quartet, with its six linked Adagio movements, held the audience spellbound as the Epilogue simply faded away into the dark and distance recesses of the 18th century Chapelle. Just unforgettable.......

The Debussy Quartet's (photo below) innovative programmming started me thinking about the different options for scheduling quartet cycles. The two usual options are to play them chronologically, for convenience, or play them mixed by different periods to give variety - which is what the Debussy Quartet chose. The order for the quartets is usually the call of the performers. But not if you are lucky enough to be invited to play in the famous Slee Beethoven Cycle in Buffalo.

Frederick Caldecott Slee was a prominent corporate lawyer in that city, and together with his wife was a great supporter of chamber music. An endowment was established for an annual cycle of the
Beethoven Quartets at Buffalo University. Within the terms of the endowment Mr Slee prescribed the order in which the quartets are to be played, together with the number of concerts (6) - and no variation is allowed. And that is exactly how they have been performed annually for the last 50 years, with many famous quartets including the Tokyo, Guarneri and Muir performing the cycle in the prescribed order. In fact the Guarneri were so taken with the programme of the Slee cycle that they use it in all their complete Beethoven Quartet performances.

And here is the Slee sequence used in Buffalo, which unusually does not end with a late Quartet:

Concert I:
Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127
Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1
Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3

Concert II:
Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74 ("The Harp")
Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

Concert III:
Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3
"Grosse Fugue", Op. 133
Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1

Concert IV:
Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 ("Serioso")
Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6
Quartet in A minor, Op. 132

Concert V:
Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5
Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130

Concert VI:
Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4
Quartet in F Major, Op. 135
Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2

And now for something completely different. Visit the really cool website of Le Fruitier de Saint Agricol, the little delicatessen just round the corner from the Chapelle de l'Oratoire - they ship their olive oil and other goodies all over the world, and the photo below is their wonderful shop.

Image credits:
Debussy Quartet -
Wentworth Associates
Avignon -
Avignon Culture
Le Fruitier de Saint Agricol -
Le Fruitier
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to
Rare Romantic Requiems in Avignon


Pliable said…
With thanks to Rodney Lister who pointed out I had the wrong key for the Beethoven Quartets Op. 59#1 - I've now corrected it.

I should point out that the Slee Beethoven Cycle web site has the same error!
Pliable said…
The day after I posted this article the brochure arrived for the Shostakovich Quartet cycle here in Norwich by the Borodin Quartet in March 2006 (see Norfolk & Norwich Music web site) .

This is a major event as the Borodins have a direct line to Shostakovich, and it is their only European cycle of the Quartets in the composer's anniversary year. The Borodins played a wonderful Beethoven cycle in Norwich last year which I had the privilege of attending.

They are playing the Shostakovich Quartets in strictly chronological order, except for Nos 1 and 2 which are reversed. I have asked the question why, and will keep you posted.
Pliable said…
..and here is the answer as to why the Borodin Quartet play Shostakovich's 2nd Quartet before the 1st.

This is the text of an exchange of emails betwen the Norwich cycle organisers, and Igor Naidin (viola) of the Borodins kindly provided by the organisers.

Sent: From organisers 08 July 2005 16:43
Subject: Borodin Quartet - Shostakovich Cycle March 2006

1.The order of quartet play is strictly chronological except in concerts 1 & 2. I can see that there is a reason of timing for the proposed order of 4 & 6 then 5 in the second concert, but I cannot see why Quartet 2 should precede No 1 in the first concert. We would prefer the whole series to kick off with No 1 – would the quartet agree?

Many thanks


1. The Quartet was always performing Shostakovich cycle in the following order:

nn. 2,1 ;3 (first quartet is too "modest" to start the cycle with, while n.2 starts with Ouverture).This proved to be good for beginning.




nn.14,13;15 (with candles where permitted)

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