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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.3 in F major, Op.73 (1946) [30:57]
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]
Hagen Quartett: Lukas Hagen (1st violin); Rainer Schmidt (2nd violin); Veronika Hagen (viola); Clemens Hagen (cello)
rec. November 2005, Große Universitätsaula, Salzburg
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 6146 [63:25]

This CD is part of a series of DG issues celebrating the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich’s birth. The inside back has four cover designs for this project, including the present Hagen Quartett issue with its clever and distinctive ‘DSCH’ in Russian red and white. It’s probably just a mock-up, but DG historians and stamp collectors can argue over why the Bernstein/Shostakovich Symphonies 6 and 9 has a red label which, under a picture of Bernstein reads what looks like, ‘A tribute to one of history’s acclaimed Bach interpreters. Released for the first time on the occasion of Richter’s 100th birthday in 2006.’
Enough obtuse irrelevancy. Readers wish to know if this new Hagen Quartett recording is up to their usual phenomenal standard, and I can say straightaway that it is. Whatever the chosen repertoire, they are almost always right there at the ‘unsurpassed’ level, and with the DG engineers holding their playing under an intense magnifying glass they have to be. These recordings are sensibly placed in a fairly resonant acoustic, but have a closeness of microphone placement so that every nuance and detail is open and exposed – the acoustic is there, but only as a faint background allowing the instruments to blend where necessary. With the volume at an appropriate level you can close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting right between Lukas and Clemens, with Rainer and Veronika not far from the end of your nose. This is not to say that the whole thing is an overly spot-lit or uncomfortable experience; just that you can feel the wood at work, and almost see the resin floating in gentle motes or flying from the strings as they resonate.
With a number of very decent versions of these quartets floating around these days, I feel it’s most helpful to have a single point of reference, and each time I’ve been confronted with a new Shostakovich recording it’s been the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s 1970s set to which I’ve turned. That’s not to say that other recordings have not made improvements, but having dealt with the superlatives on that front it’s the directness to Shostakovich’s voice and intention that I value with the Fitzwilliams. They did after all spend time studying the works with the man himself, and the sheer grit and musicality of their versions I have found to be among the hardest to beat.
The Hagen’s opening to the 3rd quartet is colourful and witty, with extra little touches of rubato here and there, and the contrasts between the jauntily whistling first violin and the impassioned moments of tutti playing carefully weighed and highly effective. Just a shade quicker, the Fitzwilliam Quartet is a tad more urgent, with less overt wit built in to their generally darker overall view on the score. They sound just a bit more Russian, if you know what I mean, more earthy. You get every ounce of refinement and subtlety with the Hagens, but they dig deeper in a different way, teasing your mind rather than poking at the soft parts of your body with a dirty mop. The uncompromising viola notes set the scene for the opening of the second Moderato con moto, and here the Fitzwilliam Quartet is a little slower, emphasising that pesante heaviness. The new DG recording reveals the counterpoint and character of each voice in this dramatic opening, and the Hagens are assertive in their glissandi, the solo violin in the second section floating over a super-staccato, spiccato accompaniment. Listening deeper into this new recording, and I find myself greatly in admiration in the way this quartet has made this music distinctly their own, without imposing unidiomatic strangeness or compromising with the sheer energy and drama which spring from every page of Shostakovich’s quartets. With the third Allegro non troppo movement they really lay into the pizzicato rhythms and rollicking ping-pong hockets: the still melancholy of the Adagio drops thereafter like a stone, sinking slowly into the deepest of cold, lonely lakes. The build-up in the final Moderato is inexorable, with a plangent Jewish-sounding solo violin singing over lightly inflected accompaniments or conversing with the cello – I love this storytelling ability on the new recording, it adds so many new dimensions.
The seventh quartet was written in memory of Shostakovich’s first wife Nina, and the first violin’s pizzicati in the first movement are like darts of pain which penetrate the heart – at least, that’s the way they sound to me in this new recording. Referring back to Fitzwilliam territory and again they are swifter and more urgent in this opening Allegretto; but with just an ounce, sorry, gram of extra restraint in the tempo the Hagens lay bare the inner workings and dual sense of a hidden, but otherwise naked emotion being expressed. The sparseness of the second movement holds the clue to this struggle with abstract language. For a composer it can be almost too easy to ‘write’ sadness, longing and regret. Shostakovich often sought his solutions in sparely precise simplicity and emptiness – emotion by association rather than through any kind of direct outpouring. The Hagen’s reading of the fugal Allegro is I think the most insanely wild I think I have ever heard, but it works wonderfully – a big wow!
The eighth quartet was only written four months later than the seventh, and was famously completed in just three days. This is the one which uses Shostakovich’s own musical signature, ‘DSCH’ (D, E flat, C and B natural), and with his own description of it as a ‘requiem to himself’ there are also plenty of references to earlier works. I’ve heard commentators moaning about the 8th quartet, but you can’t blame a piece of music any more than you can blame the Mona Lisa for being over-exposed. I doubt we would hear any complaints if this where Shostakovich’s only string quartet. This is, like Prokofiev’s 7th piano sonata, a war piece. Written in Dresden in 1960, only 15 years after the city was consumed by bombs and flames, the lingering wreckage seems to have crept into Shostakovich’s soul and re-awakened his experiences during the siege of Leningrad. It is this sense of anguish, anger and desolation which the Hagen Quartett wring from the notes on the page. Like no other performance on record that I know, my tear ducts were constantly being roused by the sense of rage and injustice ‘to the memory of the victims of war.’ I may be a sentimental old fool, but living on the European mainland makes you realise sometimes how lucky we are that, by a quirk of temporal fate, we do not live at a time when a heavy knock at the door could mean anything more than an impatient postman, or that approaching explosions are just the side effect of a liberal attitude to fireworks around new year. When you hear the stories of how people suffered – from the very people who lived through that war, it is only such music as this which really manages to express these emotions in music. I am grateful to the Hagen Quartett that their musical alchemy manages to distil this powerful human imagery into such a beautifully recorded performance.
Dominy Clements


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