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
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 work’s 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 Petersen’s 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 composer’s
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.
see also Review
by Colin Clarke