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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet, Op. 57 (1940) [30.55]
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 49† (1838) [13.00]
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 83 (1849) [22.07]
Ewa Kupiec (piano)
Petersen String Quartet
rec. 20-23 October 2003, Bayerischer Rundfunk Studio, Munich
CAPRICCIO 67 082 [66.19]


Towards the end of the 1930s, no doubt exasperated by the difficulties he was experiencing under the spotlight of political control of the arts, Shostakovich turned to the more private world of chamber music, and in particular to the string quartet. The success of his Quartet No. 1, written for the Beethoven Quartet, led to the composition of a Piano Quintet, which he intended as a work that he and they could perform together. Soon after completing the Sixth Symphony, he turned in earnest to composing the Quintet, and took part in the first performance, in November 1940. By the side of the dark, brooding atmosphere of the first movement of the symphony, the Piano Quintet strikes an enigmatic character.

Five-movement schemes undoubtedly interested Shostakovich greatly during this phase of his creative life. Both the Eighth and Ninth symphonies are constructed to this formula, and in the Quintet, deriving perhaps from his own strengths and weaknesses, the keyboard writing is notable for its clarity and simplicity. The deliberate restrictions of style serve to enhance the effectiveness of the textures, becoming one of the workís distinguishing features.

It opens with a piano prelude, as if in homage to Bach. This simple opening leads into more complex relationships between piano and strings; and as the music develops there are more subtle relationships of phrasing than Ewa Kupiec and the Petersen Quartet choose to find. Of course there is more than one way to interpret a masterpiece: a score is only like a recipe, it is not the finished meal. But as so often in Shostakovich, the mood is enigmatic and the detachment - in the best sense - of these performers is a legitimate response to that challenge. However, other recordings, for example the recent Chandos issue with Martin Roscoe and the Sorrel Quartet, generate greater intensity.

The Petersen is an ensemble of the front rank, and it shows in their performances of these two quartets. We should not make the mistake of presuming that the First Quartet is an early work. Far from it, since Shostakovich had already written five of his fifteen symphonies by the time he embarked upon its composition. In a way the dry acoustic of the recording suits the music, confirming its essentially Russian wit, while it also helps clarify the articulation of the Scherzo and Finale, both of which are taken particularly quickly. It would be wrong to fall into the trap of trading the Petersenís chosen tempi against that of others, because these things are always relative. A case of who dares wins, perhaps.

The same is true of the faster movements of the Fourth Quartet, in which the Scherzo features some astonishing virtuosity, delivered with tight ensemble playing to match. However, the Finale is surely too quick for the composerís Allegretto tempo, a marking that implies attention to phrasing and articulation to be a matter of priority. Momentum is perhaps a secondary rather than a primary concern here, for the music can develop a vein of tragedy that is not so present in this performance.

Terry Barfoot

see also Review by Colin Clarke







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