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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Brodsky Quartet website

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
String Quartets 1-15 complete
Brodsky Quartet: Michael Thomas, Ian Belton vv.; Paul Cassidy, vla.; Jacqueline Thomas, vc.
Recorded Teldec Recording Studio, Berlin, Germany, September 1989.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français
Originally released 1991; re-released 2003
TELDEC 2564 60867 2 [378.16]

 

Comparison recordings:

Borodin Quartet (1970) [ADD] Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov, vv; Dmitry Shebalin, vla; Valentin Berlinsky, vc. Chandos Historical CHAN 10064

Manhattan Quartet (1989):Eric Lewis, Roy Lewis, vv; John Dexter, va; Judith Glyde, vc. ESS.AY Recordings CD1007/13
Fitzwilliam Quartet (1977) [ADD]: Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Sparey, vv; Alan George va; Iaon Davis, vc. Decca 455776
Emerson Quartet (2002) Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, vv; Lawrence Dutton, vla; David Finckel, vc. DG 463284

[For additional comments and the timings comparisons some other versions, see my review of the Rubio Quartet performances ]

The works at hand are:

key
Op
year
Mv
Manhattan
 Borodin I  
Fitzwilliam
Brodsky

1

C

49

1938

4

14.46

13.49

15.23

13:54

15.08

2

A

68

1944

4

34.38

36.08

35.44

33:06

35.01

3

F

73

1946

5

28.39

32.58

31.30

28:06

31.11

4

D

83

1949

4

25.37

25.12

25.44

24:19

25.01

5

Bb

92

1952

3

32.58

29.34

30.56

30:10

31.54

6

G

101

1956

4

24.34

24.50

26.40

22:13

22.14

7

f#

108

1960

3

12.40

11.52

12.44

11:34

13.35

8

c

110

1960

5

20.26

20.42

20.43

19:34

20.54

9

Eb

117

1964

5

25.17

28.37

27.13

24:42

25.17

10

Ab

118

1964

4

23.33

23.40

22.53

21:37

23.37

11

f

122

1966

7

16.35

16.07

16.03

16:05

17.20

12

Db

133

1968

2

26.12

28.46

27.40

24:52

27.57

13

bb

138

1970

1

19.54

18.38

19.07

19:08

20.54

14

F#

142

1973

3

26.57

-

26.30

25:04

26.58

15

eb

144

1974

6

35.25

-

34.46

35:24

37.32

The point most clearly to be gained from the table of timings above is how much alike they all are, but the exceptions are interesting. While the best recorded performances of the symphonies seem to be those which deviate the most from printed metronome markings, in the quartets everyone seems to stay pretty close to the score. The Emerson Quartet version delivers the fastest version of #7, #10, and #12 in keeping with the impression of several reviewers that this is a fast version overall. With the Brodsky Quartet tempi are virtually all in the middle, in keeping with the impression that in most ways this is a moderate performance — with the exception of #15 where they are the slowest version ever recorded! Yet some of the movements are all but unrecognisable from one performance to the next, so, without deviating from tempo, great individual expression is possible. The string quartet is a most flexible, most sensitive instrument.

The Rubio Quartet’s playing is dramatic and sensual. They particularly like to settle into a nice rich tonal chord and let it resonate among the four instruments and hold the taste of it for a second. They treat this music like Art of the Fugue, keeping a mostly solemn, unruffled mood throughout. The 1984 Borodin Quartet on the other hand play some of the faster movements with a torchy vibrato and a trace of schmaltz and find a bouncy Russian folk tune here and there to which they give an earthy authenticity. The 1970 Manhattan Quartet play with a particularly American sense of drama, that is relatively free of ‘baggage’ from the past. Here do not listen for Bach, or Stalinist terror, or the ancient sense of earthy Russian folk music. If the legendary Hollywood Quartet had ever recorded these works, I believe they would have sounded much like the Manhattan Quartet. Beautiful sound (digital recording certainly doesn’t hurt), balanced dramatics, broad range of emotions, more extroversion here and there than in the European versions. Their performance of the slow movement of Quartet #2 has an almost operatic sense of tragedy, whereas the 1970 Borodin Quartet performance of this movement is a totally solitary and terrifying experience. With the Manhattan Quartet the peasant dance in Quartet #1 sounds more like something from the stage of Oklahoma than from a Russian village.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet greatly pleased Shostakovich. He allowed them to premiere the final three quartets in the West and their recording was the first complete one. It has the most live acoustic of all, and I am not the only reviewer to wonder if the reverb were artificially enhanced. Theirs is the most ‘romantic’ performance in the traditional sense with greater contrasts of tempo and texture than the others. The high resolution transfers by Chandos on the analogue recorded Borodin set are exceptionally clear and entirely comparable with the digital sound on the other sets.

The performances by the Emerson, Fitzwilliam and Brodsky are quite different while equally valid. The Fitzwilliam version is richly romantic and emotionally charged, sort of the "Leopold Stokowski" performance. The Emerson quartet version is at times fast, tense, highly energetic, sort of like an "Arturo Toscanini" version. The Brodsky version is carefully crafted, balanced, slightly understated, like a version by "Sir Adrian Boult." Why on earth would anyone want to understate things? Not because, as some people seem to feel, Sir Adrian and the British are afraid of expressing feelings, but because by understating the emotionalism in the music other aspects of the music are more clearly appreciated, and the overall musical experience is richer. Therefore one could easily find the Brodsky version to be the best version by a British quartet.

In the first quartet, for instance, the Emersons take the first two "moderato" movements faster than anybody else, but their playing does not sound rushed, just a nicely pulsed andante. Here the Brodskys are relatively slow but no one plays the music more interestingly. In the third movement, "allegro molto" everybody plays it about as fast as they can, with the Emersons not noticeably faster, nor noticeably any more precise nor incisive. In the first movement of the second quartet, the Emersons use slightly exaggerated rhythmic accents, but their performance is no faster than the Brodskys or Borodiners nor is it ultimately more dramatic, just more marked in texture and perhaps a shade less graceful. The Brodskys play the second movement with beauty and great sadness, but also with a little dignity as if to say that continuing to live may be possible after all. But it is in this movement in the Borodin Quartet performance where Dubinsky’s solo attains Olympian heights of passion and terror. You must have this recording of this movement in your collection if you love Shostakovich, but don’t ever listen to it alone in the dark. The disk should bear a warning label!

In the Eighth Quartet the Emersons bring in the fastest version ever recorded, accomplishing the fourth movement "largo" in nearly 20% less time than the others, but they do not slight the stark, dramatic pauses between the opening chords. The Brodskys and the Borodiners are both on the slow side in this one, matching timing within a second. Both play with passion, yet things do move along at a properly dramatic pace, there is no sense of dragging out the music. Again, the Borodiners are the most intense.

The Borodiners play the slowest #12 and the fastest #13 on disk. Since these were the earliest of these recordings of these works, more moderate consensus tempi have developed subsequently, as encountered in the Fitzwilliam recording based on performances authorised by the composer, and observed by the Emerson Quartet. The Brodsky Quartet plays the consensus tempo on #12, but gives us the very slowest version of #13. But in direct comparison these slowest and fastest performances both sound perfectly convincing but also in many ways quite different.

As for the overall best performed version, it would probably be one I have never heard, by the Beethoven Quartet which most often played the works at home; but they never made a modern studio recording and such versions as are available, assembled partially from Soviet broadcast tapes (and acetate disks), have poor sound and have been released on minor labels.

If you do not presently own a version of these quartets, then the Brodsky would be a very good one as a first set. Then, if you want them warmer and sweeter, buy the Fitzwilliam Quartet version; if you want them brisker, buy the Emerson Quartet version. If you intend to have multiple versions in your collection, the Borodin I version on Chandos Historical is an absolute must-have — but only if you are secure that any tendencies you may have towards suicidal depression are completely under control. By this time you will have at least one version each of the last two quartets and can accept their absence in the Chandos set. But what a pity that we will never hear Dubinsky play the 15th!

In the third movement of Quartet #2 listen for that little pizzicato figure that made such a nice touch in Alan Hovhaness’ Mt. St. Helens Symphony. In Quartet #13 listen for the "Ya Khachu!" motif from Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony; it’s a Russian joke, sounding like a sneeze, which can have interesting meanings in Slavic folklore, but it actually means "I desire!" And listen if you choose for the so-called "12 tone" experiments in the later quartets; but as Tovey says it is not necessary to invent strange systems to account for dissonant notes in tonal music, and with the unlamented and nearly universal disappearance of serial music Shostakovich’s "experiments" are actually more interesting viewed entirely in a tonal context.

One reviewer mistakenly suggested that the Michael Thomas of the Brodsky Quartet was the same person as Michael Tilson Thomas, pianist, and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but these are two different people.

For a most detailed quartet by quartet comparison and rating of all known recordings, check out:
http://develp.envi.osakafu-u.ac.jp/staff/kudo/dsch/work/sq1e.html
.

(replace the number in the final entry with the number of the quartet in question. For instance for the tenth quartet change it to: sq10e.html. And if you prefer the Japanese language version, leave off the "e.")

Paul Shoemaker

 



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