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S & H Recital Review

Shostakovich, Beethoven St Petersburg String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 11.30am, Sunday September 21st, 2003 (CC)


Originally planned as ‘Beethoven, Shostakovich’, the reversal of order of pieces was perhaps wise. Shostakovich’s string quartets contain some of his most intimate music, and perhaps best not to toddle off to roast beef and trimmings immediately post-angst, or so the St Petersburg Quartet obviously thought.

In the event, their Shostakovich Fourth Quartet (1949) would not have had the power to put anyone off. It was, in general, perfectly acceptable. In particular, the quartet could have been commended for letting Shostakovich’s lines speak for themselves in the first movement as long as the undercurrents were felt, too. One needs to be aware of the depth of the music, and yet here, as the quartet warmed into the piece, it all floated on the surface rather. True, things improved in the second movement, where more warmth was in evidence, and the first violin displayed an intensity hitherto lacking. If some mezza voce octaves in the third movement did indeed make their affekt, it did not really add up to the full effect this piece can carry with it. Similarly, the finale built up a fair head of determined steam (and special mention should go to Aleksey Koptev’s plaintive viola) but the first violin, Alla Aranovskaya getting carried away, let her tuning slip rather distractingly. The St Petersburg’s recording of this quartet is available on Hyperion CDA67154 (coupled with Nos. 6 and 8) at full price; although I have not heard this, my impressions of CDA67155 lead me to believe there is some dichotomy between disc and live performance: review here

The first of the ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartets began promisingly enough, taken at a healthy Allegro. But tuning problems returned and it was instructive of Beethoven to set the pair of violins against the viola and cello at one point, just to remind us that the lower voices of this quartet are clearly superior to the upper ones. Despite a nice sense of instrumental interplay in the development sections, a sense of affection for the music was missing, as was an overall plan for the movement, which failed to get anywhere in the end. The second movement included its fair share of disagreements about tempo. As if that is not enough, some passages could have been more suave, some could have danced more. Neither was I enamoured of the forced portamenti of the third movement. Variable tuning again reared its head here, as it did in the finale, a movement here imbued with little joy. The performance was more about technical hurdles and how to jump them, resulting in an experience that was low on verve and, in the final analysis, eminently lacklustre. A disappointment.

Colin Clarke



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