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Aulos Music

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets:-

No.1 in C major Op.49 (1938) [14.17]
No.2 in A major Op.68 (1944) [36.09]
No.3 in F major Op.73 (1946) [31.37]
No.4 in D major Op.83 (1949) [22.29]
No.5 in B flat major Op.92 (1952) [32.02]
No.6 in G major Op.101 (1956) [25.22]
No.7 in F sharp minor Op.108 (1960) [12.41]
No.8 in C minor Op.110 (1960) [19.46]
No.9 in E flat major Op.117 (1964) [25.32]
No.10 in E flat major Op.118 (1964) [23.37]
No.11 in F minor Op.122 (1966) [16.15]
No.12 in D flat major Op. 133 (1968) [24.36]
No.13 in B flat major (1970) [15.22]
No.14 in F sharp major Op.142 (1973) [26.25]
No.15 in E flat major Op.144 (1974) [35.57]
Taneyev Quartet
Recorded in the Glinka Hall, Leningrad, 1968-78
AULOS AMC2 0551/6 [6 CDs: 50.29 + 54.06 + 70.09 + 68.57 + 56.16 + 62.27]

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Over the course of a decade, starting in 1968, the Taneyev Quartet recorded the cycle of Shostakovich Quartets. It’s been a long wait to have them collated now but admirers, who may have despaired of seeing them re-released in this way, can rejoice. They were last seen over a decade ago and for completeness sake I should note those issue numbers here – Nos. 1, 4 and 5 appeared on Melodiya SUCD 11-00308, Nos. 3 and 9 on SU 11-00309, Nos. 6, 7, and 8 on SU 11-00311, Nos. 2 and 10 on SU 11-00310, Nos.11, 12 and 13 on SU 11-00312, and Nos. 14 and 15 on SU 11-00313. The last two quartets were licensed to, and issued by, CBS in the USA. As a footnote to this I should add that Praga brought out what is undoubtedly a bogus "live" Fifth. It’s almost certainly the studio Fifth recorded here.

As many will know the Taneyev premiered the Fifteenth Quartet and their authority in this music, whilst not as intimate of course as the Beethoven or as widely acknowledged as the Borodin, remains powerful and lasting. Certainly their tonality is less homogenously warm than the Borodin and as individualists they are not quite the Beethoven’s equals but their insights into this body of work are unceasing, their tempos broadly active and forward moving and their conception completely convincing on its own terms. Clearly this is one of the greatest of all cycles of these quartets and in many ways its claims on the collector go beyond even that recommendation. There are some very occasional moments when the recording fails to quite define the playing but the engineering was otherwise excellent and Aulos has surpassed itself with the slipcase and two boxed sets contained within.

The Taneyev tended toward a lean sound, as those who possess their recordings of the Miaskovsky cycle will remember. One hears it immediately in the opening of the First Quartet where they cultivate a corporate tone that is clearer and chillier than their competitors. Their sense of drama is not accompanied by inflated rhetoric either; the folk drones of the Overture of the Second are held in balance and certainly not rushed off their feet as can rather happen with the eponymous Shostakovich Quartet performance on Olympia. Yet individually the players do cultivate a wide range of colours and their bowing prowess and matching of tone colours are formidable - sample Vladimir Ovcharek’s difficult first violin part, accomplished and engaged, in the recitative in the Adagio. What emerges time and again is their command of the larger canvasses such as the finale of the same quartet where they bind the reflective and deciso aspects with seamless surety. This was clearly so when they embarked on the cycle in 1968 because the Third, the first to be taped, is equally strong on the architectural elements where in the third movement Allegro non troppo they bring out the remorseless brittleness at a fast tempo – very well articulated and crystal clear intonation; those skittering pizzicatos register decisively as well. This corporate approach pays dividends in such as the slow movement of the Third where rivals tend to phrase more heavily and emphatically; the more ambiguous Taneyev response coupled with their lighter bow weight means that they coalesce the material with seamless control; it is less contrastive and blunt. And in the finale tension is maintained even when the violins go into the highest register.

The lyric climaxes of the Fourth are briskly characterised and its Andantino is expressive without too much weight; the sense of release and tension in the finale is kept up to the end. Some may baulk here and at some other points at the sense of purpose they engender; this is not always the same as fast tempi because it relates equally to accents and the shaping of phrases, though in the post-1950 quartets they do take a determined view of the music. The Fifth however isn’t unduly fast but is full of clarity of passagework and discipline; details such as the cello lines’ arching phrases are well brought out in the first movement and the motor rhythms are accompanied by big sonorous playing. The restrained melancholy evolves naturally in the Andante and the propulsion of the finale, which acts as a scherzo-finale, is genuinely intense. The Taneyev reserve a touching intimacy for the slow movement of the Sixth where its neo-baroque inflexions are unforced; there’s neither wallowing nor lingering here, either, and adherents of the Borodin traversals and of the Shostakovich will note that the Taneyev’s relative directness of utterance contrasts with more their overtly romanticised playing. Whether tremolandi, pizzicati or in unison, the Seventh – an exceptionally compact and ambivalent work – responds to the concentration of loss and grief enshrined in the central Lento – its stillness contrasting with the succeeding searing finale.

The Eighth has an inexorable sense of momentum though the Taneyev stress the Allegretto less dynamically than other quartets and take the slow movement at a fast Largo. For all their relative speed in some of the quartets what is never audible is any sense of breathless phrasing, or unnecessarily harried playing; on the contrary the tensile dynamics of the Eighth’s second movement contrast fully with the intensely sonorous slow movement. Daringly terraced dynamic shading marks out the slow movement of the Ninth as does a strongly etched succeeding Allegretto; the contrasts of light and heavier bowing are optimum here whilst the slow movement avoids all sense of lingering. The Tenth is a work that especially suits the Taneyev’s rather brittle and edgy corporate sound; tension is magnified by tremendous subtleties of inflexion and by a sure sense of stylistic probity and in the slow movement they do open out rather more than elsewhere to span its gravity of utterance.

The Eleventh is notable for the tonal matching between Ovcharek and second violinist Grigori Lutsky. The sparseness of texture they cultivate and their acute playing are both laudatory as are the brittle outbursts in the short first Adagio and the greater cultivated weight in the second. One feels that they have a panoramic view of the schema of the opening movement of the Twelfth. Nothing is allowed to sag, episodes are prepared with scrupulous intelligence and imagination and the gradual unveiling of the beauties that end the movement are genuinely moving. No less so the vivid colours of the Allegretto and the range of expressive devices employed to put across this multi-partite movement, which includes slow movement and scherzo. The slower material is rightly reverential and muted and the ending in their hands seems affirmative. The grim Thirteenth, that single movement quarter of an hour span, nevertheless moves relentlessly and remorselessly forward. A number of competitors routinely take as much as two or three minutes longer than the Taneyev (as does the Shostakovich for example) though few match it in grip or bite. Nor do many grasp the elation and despair embedded in the Fourteenth with as much directness. The metrical flexibility and tonal subtlety here are highly distinguished. Note especially the playing of the pizzicato passages and the unceasingly beautiful line of the first violin in the Adagio and the Bachian flourishes and recurring pizzicato reminiscences in the Allegretto finale. There’s something Janačék-like about the playing and the unleashing of the radiant ending. The final quartet, the Fifteenth, was the one premiered by these forces after Sergei Shirinsky of the Beethoven Quartet had died following a rehearsal of it. As a result their performance carries an especial charge and we can hear in the jagged control of the second movement Adagio how powerfully controlled, and yet expressive, is the melancholia they evoke. In their hands the concluding Epilogue-Adagio has an unbowed and determined forward motion that carries all before it.

This is an essential set for admirers of the Shostakovich quartets. The fact that the musicians knew him and premiered the last quartet is of considerable importance, of course, but beyond that is the authoritative and dynamic and highly tensile grip the Taneyev exert throughout all these works. The six CDs are split into two box sets and housed in a sturdy case. The notes are perfectly adequate though not voluminous.

Jonathan Woolf

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