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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets 1-15 complete
CD 1
Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op. 49 [14:56]
Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68 [33:09]
Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73 [29:21]
CD 2
Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83 [25:03]
Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 [31:00]
Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 [22:05]
CD 3
Quartet No. 7 in F sharp Minor, Op. 108 [12:13]
Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 [20:31]
Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117 [26:10]
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 [16:36]
CD 4
Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 118 [23:38]
Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133 [26:11]
Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138 [19:53]
Two Pieces op. 36 [6:14]
CD 5
Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major, Op. 142 [26:34]
Quartet No. 15 in E flat Minor, Op. 144 [28:39]
Rasumowsky Quartet (Dora Bratchkova (1st violin); Ewgenia Grandjean (2nd violin); Gerhards Müller (viola); Alina Kudelevic (cello))
rec. June-December 2005, Musikstudio 1 des Saarländischen Rundfunks, Saarbrücken
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 562 [5CDs: 77:47 + 78:30 + 76:01 + 76:25 + 61:23]

 

I have always been attracted to box sets, and this one is an extremely enticing prospect. The Rasumowsky Quartet from Saarbrücken is named after Beethoven’s famous opus. Founded in 2001, they are a relatively new ensemble, although each member has a depth of experience in chamber music in all its forms. According to the booklet notes ‘The basis of the recordings is namely the not yet completed latest complete edition by DSCH Publishers in Moscow, which only takes the autography into consideration.’ This edition apparently contains corrections of many details in comparison with the traditional edition, which included a number of printing errors. Maxim Shostakovich, son of the composer, contributed further corrections from original sources. The result has been highly praised by Maxim Shostakovich: "The new recording of the complete string quartets of Dimitri Shostakovich by the Rasumovsky Quartet has made the very deepest impression on me. The creative and sensual penetration into the world of the music of Dimitri Shostakovich, the individual mastery and the talent of each of the individual members of this excellent ensemble allow this recording to be numbered amongst the best interpretations ever of the music of my father".

With such plaudits what else is there to be said! Well, the recordings are indeed very good, with close presence for the musicians and only a measured dose of resonance from what must be quite a large studio space. The box and booklet show portraits of Shostakovich by Gabriel Gilkman. Gabriel came into contact with Dmitri via his brother Isaak who was a good friend of the composer, and publisher of some of his letters. The artist came to be regarded as ‘artistically subversive’ and left for the West in 1980, living in Munich until his death in 2003. The booklet notes point out some useful details in the quartets, emphasising the private, sometimes experimental nature of these works: putting them into historical context and relating them to Shostakovich’s symphonic output.

Musicologists and amateur notewatchers alike will of course want to find out what differences the new edition produce. The booklet reveals little detail about what corrections might have been found, but does mention choice of tempo and tempo relations. The waltz in the Second Quartet has indeed been given a bit more of a kick start, its swifter traversal revealing a 30 second advantage over the Fitzwilliam Quartet, who do sound more leaden-treaded as a result. The Rasumowsky’s reading has urgency and technical bravura which contradicts the Con sordino (with mutes) instruction, which would seem to indicate a more secretive atmosphere. The final Allegro of the Ninth Quartet has similarly been found to require a far more fleeting tempo, resulting in some remarkable effects. The crazy ‘barrel organ’ waltz at 0:50 becomes a surreal jumping music box, and many of those ‘pesante’ figures take on an interestingly new line and rhythmic function.

Take any of the slow movements and compare timings – you will find the Rasumowsky Quartet coming in well under the rope most of the time. This is part of the revisions mentioned in the booklet notes: ‘The musicians have kept strictly to the demands of the composer, resulting in the slow movements no longer appearing so heavy and pathetic.’ Taking that ‘pathetic’ as being based on the true meaning of the word suggests that we might be losing some of the pathos for which Shostakovich’s Quartets are most loved. Looking at the Adagio of the Third Quartet and comparing it with another very recent issue by the Hagen Quartet (DG 00289 477 6146) makes for some interesting listening. I was moved by the Hagen’s reading, but the Rasumowsky’s, while initially seeming more superficial, has a drama all of its own. There is an undeniably natural flow here – certainly less heartrendingly searching, but conveying an equally convincing but different message. The Hagen’s version has the tread of the condemned man, filled with anguish and painful nostalgia. With the Rasumowsky Quartet the references are somehow more classical – it is as if the spirit of Schubert still moved between the notes, making the emotion more one of bittersweet resignation while holding the potential for hope.

Turning to the Eighth Quartet, which is arguably one big Adagio with a few bumps in between, the Hagen Quartet have us in an icy grip right from the start. Their passion and intensity has the look of the Ancient Mariner, leaving the listener in no doubt as to the true meaning of tragedy and suffering. The opening of that nightmarish fourth Largo is more like punches to the stomach with the Rasumowsky Quartet. There is intensity in the playing, which winds like stabbing gusts of wind toward the still, quiet chorale – a very effective contrast indeed. I can’t say I’m utterly convinced - yet, but neither can I say this was not what Shostakovich intended. The final Largo emphasises the lyrical nature of the themes, and the contrapuntal voices convey almost a madrigal sense of yearning and secretive love, extinguished, but like a freshly stubbed cigarette, still with some wisps of smoke rising in a gently defiant column against the heavy wooden panels of some dark, intimidating office. The Hagen Quartet phrase this in a more overtly tear-jerking way, leaning on the dissonant notes, restricting vibrato, almost subjugating the voices in order to create more unity. This is still the version which messes most with my follicles and keeps my extremities tingling in the deep dark of night, and I can’t imagine Shostakovich saying ‘it’s all wrong!’ Let’s face it, these are versions which are going to have to live side by side, agreeing to disagree.

I’m willing to be shot down in flames, but as a composer I know from experience how infrequent it is that original tempo indications are strictly maintained in performance. I’m not suggesting that Shostakovich would have made bad judgements, but pieces have a way of settling into natural tempi which often deviate from the heat of the moment in which they were written down. There is also the Fitzwilliam phenomenon – a quartet which actually worked with Shostakovich and had his approval, their recordings a literal record of the results of this collaboration. It is of course true that all new information and evidence will add depth and value to interpretations in the future, but it is also possible that overly Urtext nit-picking can lead to intellectual cul-de-sacs. Arguably, elements of such an approach could even be turning the clock back – always making the (not necessarily correct) assumption that certain tempo indications are in fact revisions rather than corrections. It is interesting to compare dates of composition with those of publishing. As far as I can see, many of the early quartets were published as late as the early 1960’s (based on the Musica Rara – London scores, there is also the Anglo-Soviet Music Press Ltd. to which I didn’t have access), which provides plenty of time either for second thoughts, or for the inexact science of performing habits to creep in to the published version. In any case, this set is not a signal for us to dump all of our favourite quartet CDs – the differences are noticeable and sometimes telling, but not extreme and, I feel, not definitive. I shall however be interested to hear if we are entering an era of swifter Shostakovich Adagios, and in seeing what real musicologists make of all this!

Seeing as these recordings are based on new editions, and in a spirit of research, I have copied the timings table from Paul Shoemaker’s review of the Rubio Quartet set on Brilliant Classics and added those of the Rasumowsky. I don’t remember being that impressed by the Rubio Quartet and soon gave that set away, but for the price one shouldn’t complain.

key

Op.

Year

mvts

Rubio

Borodin I

Borodin II

Fitzwilliam

Manhattan

Rasumowsky

1

C

49

1938

4

13.55

13.50

14.15

15.23

14.46

14:56

2

A

68

1944

4

35.42

35.55

38.01

35.44

34.38

33:09

3

F

73

1946

5

31.56

32.45

33.33

31.30

28.39

29:21

4

D

83

1949

4

25.37

24.55

25.07

25.44

25.37

25:03

5

Bb

92

1952

3

31.50

29.25

31.37

30.56

32.58

31:00

6

G

101

1956

4

25.19

24.40

24.14

26.40

24.34

22:05

7

f#

108

1960

3

13.12

11.50

12.29

12.44

12.40

12:13

8

c

110

1960

5

20.18

20.50

21.50

20.43

20.26

20:31

9

Eb

117

1964

5

26.07

28.25

26.51

27.13

25.17

26:10

10

Ab

118

1964

4

24.09

23.40

24.11

22.53

23.33

23:38

11

f

122

1966

7

16.53

16.50

15.16

16.03

16.35

16:36

12

Db

133

1968

2

27.10

-

27.25

27.40

26.12

26:11

13

bb

138

1970

1

20.44

-

19.56

19.07

19.54

19:53

14

F#

142

1973

3

28.03

-

28.15

26.30

26.57

26:34

15

eb

144

1974

6

35.39

-

36.24

34.46

35.25

28:39



The greatest extreme in difference crops up in the Fifteenth Quartet, which, going on its content of six adagios, is less surprising than it might seem. Seeing as the Fitzwilliam Quartet worked with Shostakovich on this one I have taken their recording as a comparison. Expressive lines and phrasing hide none of the tragedy in the Fitzwilliam recording which was made no more than three years after the piece was written, and only two after the death of its composer. The opening Elegy is a drawn-out farewell, rooted in Russianness, rich in the imagery and associations of something like Dante’s icy hell – or whichever direction your mind is taken. Skeletons limp through the weary secco steps of a waltz in the second Serenade. Everything is emptiness, sparing and economical – no great energy left for the driving rhythms and crowd-pleasing business of the past. The fifth movement is a Funeral March, but filled with elegiac solos like mourners taking turns to eulogise along the pathway. The Fitzwilliam Quartet is eloquent and impassioned, connecting closely with Shostakovich’s uncompromising message. Turning to the Rasumowsky Quartet there is almost immediately less of a feeling of static timelessness in the Elegy: lines seem to have a greater sense of direction and purpose. As with many of these comparisons, the Rasumowsky Quartet gains in logical progression and musical sense what they might loose in terms of ultimate emotional weight. Their Elegy is less a barren landscape, more a gently sung chorale. The second Serenade movement, with those remarkable crescendo notes and stabbing pizzicati doesn’t have the dynamic force I’ve heard elsewhere, and the waltz becomes more a wistfully floating dance – ghosts rather than rattling bones. The Nocturne starts beautifully, but is marred a little by some little intonation question marks, although I do love the Rasumowski’s subdued con sordino tone, which sometimes seems to ring like distant bells from the top of the valley – Bible Black. The Funeral March, as by now expected, has less of the heavy tread of the many, more the formal, upright symbolism of professional pall-bearers who, unlike the desperate mourners of the Fitzwilliam’s, discuss and deplore the wasted life of a colleague.

This is an interesting and worthwhile set. While it is most certainly well recorded and performed I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that this is one Shostakovich set which might almost serve as pleasant background music. There were few, if any moments when I felt the grip of fear at one’s throat, the hot iron breath of danger on one’s back. This is not to say that the Rasumowsky Quartet play without commitment and intensity, but the fiendish demons and sprites were never hanging from my coat tail – they always seemed to be just around the corner, sneaking a quick fag. There are also some tuning issues I have as well. It’s rarely at the ‘ouch’ level, but for me there were many crucial moments robbed of their full impact because of something just a fraction too low or too high somewhere in the mix. If you doubt my ears, search for that triumphant return of the main theme in the fourth Allegretto movement of the Tenth Quartet (it comes in at around 5:43 – oh, oh dear…). However, even if you love your Emerson, Borodin, Fitzwilliam of Brodsky set, you can always claim to your other half that this is an essential purchase – sourced as it is from a revised and corrected edition. As such it will sit happily alongside your favourite box, providing some fascinating alternative views on music you might have though to be set in stone.

Dominy Clements

 



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