Marc Danel, first violinist of Quatuor Danel, shares the ensemble’s history with the complete string quartet cycle, including its highlights and challenges for the players


Quatuor Danel © Marco Borggreve

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When did Quatuor Danel first encounter the Shostakovich quartets? Which one did you play first? 

Our work with the Shostakovich string quartets and that of our own are closely tied together. In 1990, we were playing as an ensemble for around a year with my sister and my brother (two of the original members of the Danel Quartet) and were students of the Amadeus Quartet at the Music Hochschule in Köln. We then came across the opportunity to work with the Borodin Quartet on a course dedicated to Shostakovich quartets at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh. This allowed our quartet to explore more of this amazing repertoire. We started working on four of those quartets, with the first being the thirteenth, followed by the eighth, seventh, and ninth.

Between January and March of 1992, we were invited by the Aldeburgh Foundation, who required us to play twelve concerts, highlighting the opportunity for our quartet to learn a new repertoire. Moreover, the Borodin Quartet was in residence in Aldeburgh, and was willing to offer us their expertise. We made the decision to play all the Shostakovich quartets, eleven of them we had not played before and therefore, had to learn during the three months. This was tremendous work, but fascinating and helped by the special atmosphere in Aldeburgh, which revealed to be fitting for that kind of experience.

One of my dreams is to play the Shostakovich cycle in Aldeburgh, where this story begun.

What are the challenging parts in the quartets technically and ensemble-wise, and how do you overcome these?

As the Shostakovich cycle consists of fifteen quartets, the challenges are numerous. Some of them remain solely on the technical aspects of these pieces, such as the capacity to play together through a very intense tempo with the right intonation. To me, there are three challenges that are specific to Shostakovich’s string quartets.

The first one is the ability to sustain a demanding degree of tension and intensity.

A clear example that emerges is the first movement of the fifteenth quartet. This movement requires an enormous amount of tension within the span of a few notes. Shostakovich himself said that he wanted the audience to get bored while listening to the piece, even wishing for ’flies to drop on the ground out of boredom.’ Therefore, while the movement has a great level of intensity, not much seems to happen. This asks for a sustained and great concentration to preserve the tension in the sound, otherwise, the movement loses its ability to impress.

While we were students, the Borodin Quartet taught us how to produce a highly tensed sound, by using less hair of the bow with the impression of pushing it towards the bridge. This ‘disbalanced’ way to play means that there is ‘too much’ contact between the bow and the string which, in relation to the extremely slow bow speed, means that the string cannot sound totally free. This phenomenon causes a lot of tension.

A second difficulty unfolding when playing the Shostakovich quartets is the ability to maintain and communicate a wide range of colours. The intensity required to interpret the Shostakovich quartets is not limited to themes of aggressiveness and sarcasm. Although these quartets can transmit an acute sense of tragedy, they translate the human experience. For example, a lot of tenderness is expressed in the sixth quartet, as well as in the first and fourteenth quartets.

One of the key quartets is the sixth, as it showcases how bright, tender, and sometimes truly joyful the music of Shostakovich can be. Some people might be surprised not to find everything they expect from Shostakovich in it, but it illustrates how wide the range of Shostakovich’s feelings and colours is in his music.

Managing the adjustments between the colour levels, from warmest to coolest, is quite a task. This can be exemplified by the transition happening close to the ending of the first movement of the fifth quartet. The versatility that is required to adapt to these colour changes and translate them through the instruments clearly poses as a substantial challenge.

The last difficulty is the ability to maintain the stamina. The choice to rely on a live recording was already risky. This was enhanced by a more significant one, which was doing the recording through a cycle.

Maintaining the stamina is extremely important and highly challenging in these kinds of settings. During our recording, we played three quartets every two days, benefitting from corrections on the second day.

An example of this importance is in the second movement of the tenth quartet. The first violin needs to play one and a half pages of octaves, which can be extremely tiring for the left hand. This means that one needs to take advantage of any moments of ‘rest’ throughout the piece to relax physically. I myself had to write on my score to relax my hand at some specific points in the piece. This might sound juvenile, but the necessity to relax the muscles is essential if one wants to make it to the end of the piece.

How do you keep the repertoire fresh after playing the cycle over 30 times worldwide?

Every single day playing this repertoire is a pleasure. Every time I hear that we are going to do a Shostakovich cycle somewhere, whether it is the Wigmore Hall or a smaller place far away, I am thrilled.

These quartets have inhabited our lives, hearts, and souls for more than 33 years. I sincerely hope I never will have to perform a cycle and know within myself that it will be the last one. I would rather play a Shostakovich cycle for the last time in my life unaware, as we are constantly debating on what could be improved in the next ones.

Even though the recording took place only two years ago, I believe we have already advanced our understanding of these quartets, as this cycle (just like any great piece of music) keeps providing us with new discoveries.

Truly, the Shostakovich quartets are similar in essence to life companions.

There will always be novelty, not because we aim for it, but because the process of interpretating the Shostakovich quartets never ends. We are like children, facing such a hero that is Shostakovich, from whom we learn continuously.

Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets by Quatuor Danel is out now on Accentus Music. Watch an excerpt from the eighth quartet here:

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