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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
Chamber Symphony, Op. 83a (String Quartet No 4, orch. Barshai) (1949) [23:32]
Symphony for Strings and Woodwinds, Op. 73a (String Quartet No 3, orch.. Barshai) (1946) [32:47]
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
recorded at the Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland, 2-5 May 2001
BIS-CD-1180 [56:57]

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It was Mahler who started the now common practice of performing string quartets (including Beethoven’s Op. 95, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden) on full orchestral strings. At the time, composers were challenged by stretching the boundaries of chamber ensembles. There’s nothing more contrapuntally complex than Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, for example! In addition they frequently broke down vast orchestral forces into an infinite number of intimate trio, quartet and quintet combinations - as in Gurrelieder, for example, or much of Mahler’s Ninth.

We’ve long since been accustomed to hearing the Grosse Fuge on orchestral strings, on the grounds that - as Beethoven himself conceded - a string quartet is stretched to the limit delivering his other-worldly conception. Toscanini commonly performed late Beethoven string quartets with his NBC Orchestra, most especially the inner movements of Op 135. And both Previn and Bernstein have followed in his footsteps. In fact Bernstein’s CD with the Vienna Philharmonic of Opp. 131 and 135 - complete! - was one of his favourite recordings. Only a couple of months ago, of course, Perahia included an orchestral version of the Op 127 Quartet (with the ECO) on his latest disc.

Barshai’s done a good deal of this sort of thing too: his arrangement of the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet has very nearly become a repertory item. In fact there’s a new recording by Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi just out, including some fascinating couplings, on Capriccio 67 115. He also published orchestrations of the Tenth Quartet, Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, and a seldom-heard completion of the Mahler Tenth sketches. The disc we’re considering here includes two earlier Shostakovich quartets. Not that early, mind you: they were written between the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies.

Why do conductors want to put chamber music under the magnifying glass in this way? It’s interesting that we often judge an orchestral string section by the extent to which it is able to play like a string quartet - the ultimate accolade for any large ensemble! And, when a quartet is able to produce a great weight of sound, and sustain fortissimo over long periods - as Beethoven requires in the Grosse Fuge, for example - we commend them for their quasi-orchestral sonority, as if this were one of their supreme objectives!

And why do composers insist on channelling some of their biggest ideas into the smallest number of instruments? Is it not something to do with the intimacy of a small ensemble, and the special conviction with which the most personal material inevitably speaks when delivered by a mere handful of players? If that is so, are we not doing composers a disservice by zooming into their innermost ideas in this way, like paparazzi, and every bit as unwelcome? Is it not like broadcasting a secret, breaking a confidence, or publishing what we know to be private? In any case, material intended to be played by a soloist - and all chamber musicians are soloists - is unlikely to carry the same ‘vocal’ authority when multiplied by ‘x’, especially when, as is so often the case, it requires the kind of agility and dexterity that only a soloist can deliver. And there’s always the problem of what to do with double basses: not since Mozart have double basses invariably played cello parts down the octave!

Maybe I’m overreacting. And I’m dealing with a general issue here, not a particular instance. But we surely owe it to a composer to respect their wishes and honour their intentions. As a rule, I don’t care for any arrangements, whether they ‘work’ or not. A composer’s music is sacred: we should leave it in peace!

Fortunately for us, it seems Shostakovich himself sanctioned these arrangements - in principle, that is, but not, so far as I’m aware, these pieces in particular. So my preamble is in some ways unnecessary. These versions of the Third and Fourth Quartet are different anyway, in that they feature winds - just flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon in Quartet No. 3, plus two horns, trumpet, celesta and percussion in Quartet No. 4 - as well as strings.

I mentioned earlier the habit of Mahler and his followers of using large ensembles not so much for the power they can produce in tutti, but as ‘reservoirs’ or ‘libraries’ containing endless non-standard chamber music groups. And the voice of Mahler - so commonly heard in Shostakovich - is nowhere more strikingly heard than in the sparse orchestral textures of which he was so fond. I suggest that’s one reason why these arrangements ‘work’ so well. Barshai seldom alters anything, and rarely adds octave or even unison doublings to fill out the texture. So the intimacy of the original text is preserved, not least because much of the material remains in solo voices - albeit wind and brass as well as strings. At times, it makes for very odd instrumentation, it is true, but you have to admit that it’s no odder than you commonly find in the ‘genuine’ orchestral music. In fact, parallels can more easily and more frequently be drawn between the Quartets and Symphonies when heard in arrangements such as these.

If you don’t know the Third and Fourth Quartets, don’t hesitate to try them in this format. They’re Shostakovich at his most compelling and characteristic. All too often, I tend to think, the empty textures Shostakovich favours hover dangerously near the boundary of empty thinking. But not so here: his inspiration is seldom more persuasively sustained than in these pieces, running as they do the full range of human emotions.

Shostakovich himself considered Quartet No. 3, formerly known as the ‘War Quartet’, one of his most successful creations. The naïve irony of the first movement, with its crazy double fugue, is reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony. The eccentric waltz which forms the second movement - using only the viola(s) as accompaniment! - recalls the hideous Scherzo of the Eighth Symphony. But the overarching mood here is one of sadness, exemplified in the elegiac fourth movement, with, on this CD, its beautiful wind solos.

Quartet No. 4 is a lighter piece, both emotionally and stylistically, but Barshai’s fuller orchestration endows it - perhaps misleadingly - with even more variety and power than No. 3, most notably the dramatic climax of the second movement. The opening bars are pastoral, not unlike Nielsen, while the third movement’s blatant militarism - complete with solo trumpet and persistent drumming - recalls the Leningrad Symphony. The introspective final movement has Jewish overtones, suggesting that the inspiration for the near-contemporary song cycle From Jewish Poetry spilled over into this piece.

Such variety! And how completely those magnificent salesmen Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta are able to deliver it! Their playing is 100% secure, and impressively poised and polished. Indeed, they play as if a string quartet: completely at one. The BIS recording, unsurprisingly, is wide-ranging and atmospheric, and the silences are just that - silent.

This is a challenging and absorbing listening experience. Strongly recommended.

Peter J Lawson

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