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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 3 in F, Op. 73 (1946) [30:47]
String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960) [11:47]
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [20:21]
The Hagen Quartet (Lucas Hagen (violin); Rainer Schmidt (violin); Veronika Hagen (viola); Clemens Hagen (cello))
rec. November 2005, Salzburg, Große Universitätsaula.
DEUTSCHE GRAMOPHON 4776146 [63:25]

 

I 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.

The 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.

The 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 major.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Kevin Sutton

see also Review by Dominy Clements June RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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