confess that I have two favorite string quartets and that
I grab up every one of their new releases in the justifiable
expectation that the product will be superior. One of these
is the Emerson, the other the Hagen. Now that the floodgates
have opened and Shostakovich recordings are dropping from
the skies like manna, it is comforting to see that such care
is taken with this great composer’s music, and that an artist
born after 1875 is getting thorough and deserved appreciation.
string quartet was near and dear to Shostakovich and the three
works here represent very different periods in his life. The
second, from 1946, comes from a time when Shostakovich enjoyed
high standing in Soviet and international artistic society.
Its sometimes angular-sometimes lyrical rhythmic gestures
reflect his strong interest in Jewish melodies. Its opening
movement is tuneful and jaunty, and although there are dissonant
moments, this is airy and joyous music that exhibits a somewhat
carefree attitude of post-war relief.
second movement is less lyrical, and takes the form of a somewhat
grotesque dance in triple meter. The third movement Allegro
non troppo is downright aggressive with its sharp downward
gestures in the lower voices. The Adagio is both dark
and dreamy and although not at all happy, it is nonetheless
beautiful. The finale is substantial and complicated; an awkward
and angular dance that comes to a peaceful conclusion in F
remaining two works, both from 1960 reflect a completely different
mood and set of circumstances for the composer. The seventh
quartet, dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s wife Nina,
is intense, brief and brooding. The first movement is long
and complex, and the remaining two are extremely brief and
reflect outbursts of emotion.
eighth is perhaps the most famous of all of the composer’s
works in the genre. It is highly personal and deeply emotional,
again drawing on Jewish themes and the signature theme of
DSCH (d, e-flat, c, b natural). This was a time of great personal
upheaval marked by Shostakovich’s eventual acquiescence in
joining the Communist party. He was on the verge of a breakdown
when he wrote it, and it shows.
Hagens play with impassioned, warm perfection.
Ensemble is flawless, and unlike the Emerson, whom I also
greatly admire, this performance is soul-searching and expressive
compared to the letter-perfect and somewhat more academic
Emersons. It is also worthwhile to explore the Brodsky Quartet’s
versions. There is really little to criticize about these
readings, although the sniffing habit so prevalent amongst
string players is a bit off-putting. That’s a small quibble
however for a recording that is so committed and passionate.
Pay special attention to the early third quartet. There is
such a wealth of invention in this music, and the Hagens find both its humor and its pathos.
by Dominy Clements June RECORDING
OF THE MONTH