For the Lithuanian violinist, the haunting musical language of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 brings back treasured memories of working with Mstislav Rostropovich


Photo: Ashley Krassen

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I feel like I have a multilayered connection with the music of Shostakovich. I was born in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union, and moved to Vienna with my parents when I was three. I grew up with stories of the Stalin era ringing in my ears, and I can remember how careful we had to be, even on the other side of the Iron Curtain. My nursery school was on the same street as the Russian Embassy and my father instructed me never to speak Russian whenever I was on that street! So I was aware of the suppression that came with growing up under a dictatorship, and no Russian composer was more eloquent in captivating the feelings of angst and hopelessness than Shostakovich. He was the master of them all: not only the dark mood, suffering and cynicism, but also the moments of extreme warmth that sometimes shine through. Nearly every piece he wrote has one, including the String Quartet no.8, giving the message that as long as humanity lives on, you can lose everything but hope.

I have a very special reason to choose this piece: I was asked to perform it in 2002 at the Vienna Musikverein, for the 75th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich. I consider Slava to be the reason why I became a musician in the first place: aged two and a half, I was singing along to his 1968 recording of the Dvořák Concerto with Karajan, and I was using an umbrella in lieu of a cello! So it was an enormous honour for me to be working with my hero. He remembered so much of what Shostakovich had said to him about the Eighth Quartet, and I wrote down every word. The composer had wanted several details that didn’t make it into the score; for instance, the fourth movement contains three fortissimo chords that sound like falling bombs. They’re always played with three down bows to sound violent, but Shostakovich specified they should be played down–up–down, and tenuto, not too short.

Rachlin et al

Photo: Pat Leo

Julian Rachlin, Boris Brovtsyn, Eckart Runge and Sarah McElravy in Bremen in April 2023

Slava had many more reminiscences like this. One that he specifically asked me to relay was that Shostakovich’s very last piece, the 1975 Viola Sonata, was actually written as a cello sonata for him – although the composer never told him. Two decades later, Slava was given the first two manuscript pages of the sonata, which were exactly the same as the final version but written in the bass clef. It seemed that Shostakovich had written it for Slava who was just then defecting to the West, and he changed it for fear of being seen as the friend of a traitor. Slava told me this while we were rehearsing, and because I was playing a lot of viola repertoire at the time.

The music of Shostakovich is unlike that of any other composer. It has a very particular language, and it should be completely different from the normal orchestral or chamber music sound. I’d advise any student undertaking the Eighth Quartet for the first time to try to understand the time it was written in, by speaking to people and reading – not least because his music is so relevant to the times we’re living in now. I’d also recommend listening to recordings from that time; I don’t believe it prevents you from finding your own interpretation, and it’s understanding the music of the past that makes the present and the future. Speaking of which, I’ll be performing the piece this summer at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, regarded as the birthplace of the string quartet. It’s always very humbling to play a quartet there, and I’ll be playing with my informal quartet: Sarah McElravy, Boris Brovtsyn and Eckart Runge. We play around one concert per year together and it’s always a special moment for us all.


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