On Saturday, the forecast was for rain, but it was dry when I went out early to Yates Mill Pond, though chilly. It seemed like winter left last month, and then came back. There were few other humans, but lots of birds, including honking Canada geese, trilling Carolina wrens, and a quiet pair of hooded merganser ducks.
On Saturday night, we went over to Durham for the sixth concert of the Duke Chamber Music series, where we heard the Jerusalem Quartet. I’m aware that many people think of string quartet music as per se boring, which is too bad. At its best, a string quartet is an extraordinary being: a four-person virtuoso, an entity with the sensitivity of one and the knowledge of many. And some of the greatest music in the western classical tradition is written for this ensemble.
The Jerusalem Quartet was amazing. These four serious-looking young men were absolute masters of their instruments, and 100 percent committed. They took a questing, energized approach to the music, and convinced me that the Beethoven op. 95 should be considered a late, rather than a middle, quartet. Their Debussy was a sonic marvel.
I wasn’t familiar with the Shostakovich second quartet, and liked it less than other Shostakovich quartets, but it was worth hearing. Composed near the end of WWII in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it raises the question of the role of music in a world of bloody war in a society led by a murderous psychopath. The answer seemed to be — a tenuous, strained, painful beauty.
For the last few weeks we’ve been getting to know the seven symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). These symphonies are essentially romantic, but full of moods and questions, restless and heroic. There are numerous excellent versions available for free or almost on Spotify. Our favorites are number two and number five, but all seven have wonderful moments.