> Shostakovich Quartets 11- 15 St Petersburg [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966)
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138 (1970)
String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op. 144 (1974)
St. Petersburg String Quartet.
Recorded in the St. Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia, December 2000 - January 2001.
HYPERION CDA67157 [71.21]


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This is the penultimate disc in a much-praised cycle and it can be recommended without reservation to series’ stalwarts and newcomers alike. Although quite familiar with many of Shostakovich's orchestral works, I came to this disc as a relatively uninitiated listener in this repertoire but, expecting music demanding the same sort of concentrated listening as, say, Bartók's late quartets, was surprised by the (relative) accessibility of much of it. That is not to say that it in any sense provides easy listening, because the 13th and 15th quartets, in particular, are, in their different ways, quite demanding.

The 11th quartet is cast in seven short sections and, while maintaining his disciplined approach to the inner logic of quartet writing, the composer pays tribute to the violin, in particular, as the folk dancing "fiddle" that it originated as. In this sense, Bartók does spring to mind here, yet Shostakovich's even greater love of the ironic and grotesque differentiates this music from that of the great Hungarian. Whatever, this is eminently listenable, if at times abrasive, and certainly quite removed from the admittedly unfair and probably lazy stereotype of late Shostakovich as one of unrelenting bleakness.

The other two quartets here do approximate rather more closely to that cliché but again, scratch the surface and more unique, individuality is revealed. The 13th is, in some ways akin to the at last appreciated music of Benjamin Frankel, serially organised but in no way abandoning the melodic impulse. Accepted, this is fairly granitic stuff but this quartet, the only single movement one in the cycle, offers a remarkable listening experience. At times there is an apparent descent (no doubt intended) into musical chaos but no-one appreciative of the late 20th/early 21st string quartet is likely to be phased by this idiom.

The 15th is very much a valedictory work, like most of the composer's output in the early 1970s, up to his death. The excellent booklet notes (by Robert Matthew-Walker) rightly describe it as having "profound melancholy….akin to a requiem". The six movements, all marked Adagio, include, unsurprisingly, an elegy and a funeral march, but there is also so much more here. A lot of this music is reflective and meditative, with allusions to religious music, and the ebbing Epilogue is particularly affecting as it acknowledges, again according to the booklet, "a reposeful acceptance of Fate", no doubt the composer's impending own.

The recording is produced to the usual, exceptional Hyperion standards but the playing is something else again. This group obviously has this music in its collective soul and it shows; like the best Hungarian quartets playing Bartók or, indeed, our own Maggini playing the British quartets, there is something profoundly moving (spiritual?) here that sets this apart from most (any?) cosmopolitan/international/superstar efforts. A superb achievement that makes me want to hear the rest of the cycle as a priority.

Neil Horner

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