Vissarion SHEBALIN (1902-1963)
The Nine String Quartets

Volume 1
String Quartet No. 1 in A minor Op. 2 (1924) [21:46]
String Quartet No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19 (1935) [30:09]
String Quartet No. 3 in E minor Op. 28 (1939) [27:14]

Volume 2
String Quartet No. 4 in G minor Op. 29 (1940) [31:20]
String Quartet No. 5 in F minor Slavonic Op. 33 (1942) [26:03]
String Quartet No. 9 in B minor Op. 58 (1963) [20:13]

Volume 3
String Quartet No. 6 in B minor Op. 34 (1943) [25:08]
String Quartet No. 7 in A flat major Op. 41 (1948) [18:23]
String Quartet No. 8 in C major Op. 53 (23:08) [1960]
Krasni Quartet (Anton Shelepov (violin); Alexandra Zubova (violin); Boris Vainer (viola); Aleksei Shestiperov (cello))
first recordings
rec. St Petersburg Recording Studio, St Petersburg, March 1999 - June 2000. DDD
OLYMPIA OCD 663 - volume 1 [79:11]
OLYMPIA OCD 664 - volume 2 [77:45]
OLYMPIA OCD 665 - volume 3 [67:46]


Volume 1 AmazonUK   AmazonUS
Volume 2 AmazonUK   AmazonUS
Volume 3 AmazonUK   AmazonUS



The lamentable departure of Olympia from the scene has left major gaps in the catalogue. Their coverage of Russian music and their inspired use of Per Skans to annotate their discs made them a distinctive and highly active contributor to the breadth and opulence of today's catalogues. We can only hope that the company will revive or that their catalogue will be licensed wholesale to another player. Their Miaskovsky Symphony series stopped dead with many discs still to be issued. I wonder if we will ever hear those other Svetlanov conducted CDs to complete our knowledge of Miaskovsky's 27 symphonies. Of course some of you may have Records International complete intégrale box but there were not many of those in circulation and they were not as well documented as the Olympia series. And so to Shebalin.

Shebalin was born in Omsk in Siberia. His studies at the Moscow Conservatory were with Miaskovsky. Like Khrennikov, a composer at the head of the Soviet Establishment, Shebalin's graduation piece was his First Symphony, written in 1928. He was a brilliant pupil and a gifted communicator. Even before graduating he could be found teaching at the Conservatoire. By 1935 he had been appointed Professor and by 1941 Head of Faculty. His pupils included Edison Denisov, Veljo Tormis, Karen Khachaturian, Sofia Gubaidulina and Tikhon Khrennikov (later to prove a malign thorn in the side of Shebalin and of many other Russian composers).

Shostakovich revered Shebalin as a man of principle and it was the Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer who noted that Shostakovich had, in his workroom, portraits of three composers - Mahler, Mussorgsky and .... Shebalin.

Nevertheless Shebalin was condemned in 1948 as one of the principal ringleaders perpetrating that heinous but amorphous offence: 'musical formalism'. And the hortator was none other than his erstwhile pupil Khrennikov. This condemnation meant that Shebalin was summarily removed as Director of the Conservatory. Shebalin's candour sealed his fate when he referred to those who all too readily dropped into the vacancies as 'obliging fools'. In the wilderness he festered for three years before revisionism absolved him of sin. Needless to say it did not restore him to the positions he had held. Then in 1953 his right hand became paralysed. He continued composing using his left hand.

While orchestral music forms a large part of the Shebalin output he also made a major contribution to chamber music. In fact this aspect of his catalogue spans more of his creative career than the symphonies. His First Quartet is from 1924 and the last from 1963, the year of his death.

The First Quartet is dedicated to Mikhail Nevitov, Shebalin's first composition teacher in Omsk. The music is sweetly placid, hushed and nostalgic similar to Ravel but rising to a densely opulent and ecstatic complexity at 2.34 in the first movement. Those first two movements are very much of a piece in character. The finale of the three movement work was written with guidance from Miaskovsky, Shebalin's principal composition professor at the Moscow Conservatory. This movement bids a warm and playful farewell - combining gaiety with a trace of melancholy.

There was then a long hiatus of ten years before the Second Quartet was written. Like the First Quartet this was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet and dedicated to them. This is a four movement work that is dense, even heavy, with harmonic complexity. Towards the end of the first movement the music rises to a supremely confident statement that carries echoes of Franck and an ambivalence of mood. Ambivalence carries over into the Andantino (tr. 5) which has the air of a night-time journey - perhaps a forced march. The third movement is a piercingly haunted Andante e Cantabile. The finale - Allegro risoluto - still does not shake off the nocturnal mien. It is however more grittily determined. The final resolute punched-out gestures work wonderfully well.

The Third Quartet followed four years later. It was premiered in Moscow on 28 November 1939 and carries a dedication to Miaskovsky whose thirteen string quartets (once recorded complete by Russian Disc but now deleted) are similarly a major supporting beam in the structure of Russian twentieth century chamber music. The quartet carries no clues to the turmoil of the war years and of the Stalin's purges. Once again there are four movements. The music abandons the impressionism and moody ambiguity of its two predecessors. Confidence radiates in writing that is piercing, poignant and filled with light (I, tr. 8, 3.10). The brief and dancing Vivace is even more successful. None of this carries the bilious disillusion of Shostakovich. This is closer to the world of Miaskovsky than to Shostakovich and is, from that point of view, rather old-fashioned. An exquisitely tender Andante, loaded with sentiment but always dignified, prepares the way for another Allegro Risoluto (remember that was the tempo marking for the Second Quartet). The writing here is of comparably exalted quality with that of the other three movements. It is emotively airborne, shudderingly intense and even seeming to experiment at one point with microtones (3:37). There is a hint of mood-painting from the Second Quartet. The quartet subtly curves to a close - leaving a curiously unfinished feeling.

The String Quartet No. 4 carries a dedication to the memory of Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915). Taneyev had, through his quartets, established chamber music literature in Russia. Shebalin even quotes from Taneyev in the last movement. The themes and treatment are firmly rooted in late nineteenth century models. The mood is warmly gracious - a dialogue in serenade which at times parallels Mozart's K364 Sinfonia Concertante. The Vivo is a flightily plangent pizzicato which uncannily recalls Britten's Simple Symphony before a central episode returns to Shebalin's serene meditative lodestone. It is that lodestone mood that characterises the final Andante - Allegro.

Per Skans (whose notes I have unashamedly plundered for this review) reminds us that as conservatory director Shebalin received no plaudits from the authorities. His colleagues however were supportive and respected the fine work he was doing especially through the war years.

In 1943 Shebalin was awarded a Stalin Prize for his String Quartet No. 5. Known as The Slavonic, this work celebrates Russian nationalism. It chimed in perfectly with the patriotism of the times in the face of Hitler's invasion. The five movement quartet made use of folk melodies and there are fragmentary echoes of two Tchaikovsky works - the Serenade for Strings and the finale of the Fourth Symphony. This is music in keeping with the irresistible bucolic flavour of the Moeran quartets and, closer to home, Prokofiev's Second Quartet and Miaskovsky's Symphonies 23 and 26 - both heavily folk-influenced. There are some magical coups here - the hushed steppe whisper of the two Andantes is memorable - the second seems to refer to the Volga Boatmen's song and to Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave.

String Quartet No. 6 is again from the war years which saw Shebalin as director of the Moscow Conservatory. Folk material, so widely deployed in the Fifth Quartet, is here used more abstemiously - only in the second movement and the finale. It remains a very celebratory, mercurial, outgoing, lively and accessible work - very much 'as prescribed'. The beautiful second movement - a Finzian Andante - makes more prominent use of the baritonal cello than any of the other quartets and ends in a succession of theatrical pizzicatos. Anyone who loves the quartets of Moeran and Vaughan Williams will love this work. Try the unfailingly tuneful Allegro Giusto which ends in a whistled contemplation which is not that far removed from the valedictory gleam found at the very end of his last string quartet in 1963.

As we have seen, 1948 was a fateful year for Shebalin. It saw his fall from power. The Seventh Quartet is even more suffused with folk material than its predecessor. This lyrically singing work seems to defy the inimical gloom that surrounded the composer. Shebalin is at his most dancingly positive and optimistic in the first movement. There is a dashing Scherzo played with panache by the Krasni. A nostalgic Andante is overhung by the shadow of a vigorous dance figure from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. This prepares the ground for an Allegro assai that is shot through with folk references and gestures - brusque and gentle - always dignified.

Like the Ninth Quartet, the twenty minute Eighth Quartet was dedicated to the Borodin Quartet. Like all works written after the onset of paralysis in 1953 this was written by Shebalin using his left hand only. It betrays not a hint that it might have been written in 1960. Would we be surprised if someone attributed it to 1900? I think not. Shebalin was no enfant terrible - no revolutionary. His poignant elegiac language, once settled on, satisfied him in full. In that sense there are parallels with Finzi - another survivor out of time; out of step. This quartet is one of his most successful; movingly elegiac, poignant and pointed with just a hint of the language of his teacher Miaskovsky. The third movement launches with a cello accented lead voice as in the Andante of the Sixth Quartet. The husky final roundel surges like a sable sea and for a moment hints at Shostakovich at 1.03 - a gesture he was to make again in the Ninth Quartet.

The Ninth Quartet was written at the end of Shebalin's life when the composer had lived for a decade under doctor's orders and imminent mortality. The music here is sparer than we have become used to from the other quartets. The music takes on a huskily dignified consolatory air but still rising to an impassioned peak. It is replete with the glorious questing confidence of the Third Quartet. The work settles into a full-throated song in the finale and once again the composer momentarily assumes the caustic language of Shostakovich. It is only transient for the work ends in a brief valedictory glow comparable to the contented gleam in the epilogue to Bax's Seventh Symphony.

In summary these are tonal works, for the most part highly accessible and with rhythmic 'lift'. Only in the last two quartets do we get any hint of the acrid or pungent; even that is momentary. For that matter there is nothing of the gloomy expressionist experimentation to be found in Miaskovsky's Symphonies 7 and 13.

The Krasni is a young quartet formed in 1998. Their photograph appears on the back of each of the insert booklets. They appear to be in their teens and twenties. They play with total engagement and although I have nothing with which to compare one can sense their vibrant approach and their belief in the music. There is no feeling of tokenism or of mere catalogue gap-filling.

The notes are in English, French and German.

If you would like to explore the orchestral Shebalin you may still be able to find the following Olympias although the Lenin recording was deleted five or so years ago:-

Symphonies 1 and 3 OCD 577

Symphony 2 and 4 OCD 597

Dramatic Symphony - Lenin (to texts by Mayakovsky) OCD 204

Symphony 5 OCD 599

Despite the collapse of Olympia as a trading entity stocks of some of its issues can be had from Amazon. The three CDs reviewed here came from Amazon UK. They are likely to be in transient supply so order now if you are at all intrigued by the prospect.

These three CDs are only available separately.

If you can only afford one, go for volume 3 - those last three quartets are full of surprises. After that go for Volume 2.

Rob Barnett

Return to Index