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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets: No. 3 in F, Op. 73 (1946) [32’32]; No. 7 in F sharp, Op. 108 (1960) [13’19].
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op. 92 (1941) [22’24].
The Kopelman Quartet (Mikhail Koperman, Boris Kuchar, violins; Igor Sulyga, viola; Mikhail Milman, cello)
rec. Wyastone, Monmouth, UK, 24-27 July 2005. DDD
NIMBUS RECORDS NI 5762 [68’15]

How wonderful to see Nimbus demonstrating all its strengths in this superb issue.

The members of the Kopelman Quartet are all graduates of the Moscow Conservatoire of the 1970s. The Quartet was formed in 2002. Of course, Kopelman himself will be familiar to many because he led the famous Borodin Quartet for twenty years. Both Boris Kuchar and Igor Sulyga were founding members of the Moscow String Quartet and worked with Shostakovich on the composer’s late quartets. Mikhail Milman was Principal Cello with the Moscow Virtuosi. The Nimbus booklet note is a model of its kind, thanks to the expertise of Calum MacDonald. A shame perhaps that the works are not discussed in playing order: the Prokofiev comes first – was the disc originally programmed this way, I wonder?

Quite a line-up, then, and this is indeed a group that seems to give its all. The programme is exquisitely chosen, not only to play to the quartet’s strengths, but also because of the juxtaposition of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The importance of Shostakovich’s cycle is without question, but Prokofiev’s two little gems are largely ignored - something I have never understood. Marvellous that we can encounter them in a performance such as this.

First, the Third Quartet of Shostakovich. Effectively quashed by the 1948 Congress of Soviet Composers, it was one of various works that went underground only to resurface in the 1960s. Related to the ‘War’ works - MacDonald makes particular links to the Eighth Symphony - it is a major statement. The fourth movement Adagio in particular is magnificent in its exploration of emotive depth, especially when delivered as hypnotically as here. The desolate viola-against-cello imitations of drumbeats is quite remarkable.

The first movement begins in a much more carefree fashion, spiky and full of life. Kopelman in particular excels in his characterisation. The recording initially seemed a little boomy and over-spacious, but once adjustment was made there was no cause for complaint. The rugged determination of the second movement and the peasant-like dance of the third contain some of the most uninhibited quartet playing I have heard in a long while, on or off record. This is a masterly performance. There have been so many Shostakovich quartet recordings in recent years, but few, if any, have matched this.

The Seventh Quartet is dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s wife who had died of cancer in 1954. As MacDonald points out, this is the shortest of the Shostakovich cycle. Its terseness of expression seems to hint at unplumbed depths. I like MacDonald’s reference to the second theme of the first movement as Shostakovich theatre music; it is easy to hear exactly what he means. The desolate intertwining of themes in the slow movement lies in stark contrast to the pure vehemence of the finale.

So to the Prokofiev. Written in the Caucasus, the composer took advantage of access to a collection of Kabardinian folksongs, including several in this work; he uses a love-song for the basis of the Adagio. MacDonald states that two works using ‘local’ material had stood the test of time – this and Miaskovsky’s 23rd Symphony. Well, neither seems to get many performances as far as I can see; I have only heard the Prokofiev once in live performance! It would be a real victory for the recording industry if this disc could spawn concert performances of the quartet and in doing so give it a real chance with the public.

The Kopelman Quartet clearly takes the work very seriously. The first movement is gritty, helped by the close, but not stiflingly close, recording. That recording really comes into its own in the Adagio, where the violin pizzicati are stunningly caught by the uncredited engineers. This whole movement is mesmeric, the octave statements unnervingly ghostly.

It is in the finale, though, where one has to gasp at the fertility of Prokofiev’s invention. In the Kopelman Quartet’s hands, this is like hearing the piece with new ears. Surely, this disc will win the piece many friends.

A tremendous success. More, please.
Colin Clarke


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