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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets

No.1 in C major Op.49 (1938) [14:19]
No.2 in A major Op.68 (1944) [38:02]
No.3 in F major Op.73 (1946) [33:34]
No.4 in D major Op.83 (1949) [25:26]
No.5 in B flat major Op.92 (1952) [31:38]
No.6 in G major Op.101 (1956) [24:06]
No.7 in F sharp minor Op.108 (1960) [12.30]
No.8 in C minor Op.110 (1960) [22:04]
No.9 in E flat major Op.117 (1964) [25.38]
No.10 in E flat major Op.118 (1964) [24:20]
No.11 in F minor Op.122 (1966) [18:09]
No.12 in D flat major Op. 133 (1968) [27:30]
No.13 in B flat major (1970) [19:56]
No.14 in F sharp major Op.142 (1973) [28:21]
No.15 in E flat major Op.144 (1974) [36:26]
Two Pieces for String Octet Op.11 [10:33] *
Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 (1945) [34:14] +
Borodin Quartet
Prokofiev Quartet *
Sviatoslav Richter (piano) +
rec. Moscow 1978-83; Piano Quintet recorded live in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, September 1983
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 01077 [6 CDs: 78:14 + 79:30 + 68:44 + 73:14 + 65:52 + 65:02]
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This set of the complete quartets was recorded between 1978 and 1983 in Moscow. Borodin collectors will know better than to confuse it with the earlier – incomplete – traversal of Quartets 1-13 that has been made widely available by Chandos review. Not only is this later cycle complete but it includes the Piano Quintet with Richter and a splendid performance of the Two Pieces for String Octet where they were joined by their colleagues from the Prokofiev Quartet.

Opinions will vary over the superiority of the respective sets, albeit we have to take the Chandos set as a necessarily partial achievement. The later group underwent transitional moves during its recording and that made for a certain tentativeness in their approach. The Borodin Quartet at the time of this cycle of recordings comprised Mikhail Kopelman, Andrei Abramenkov, Dmitri Shebalin and Valentin Berlinsky. Readers will know that both first and second violinists, Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov, had emigrated necessitating a full scale re-learning of the quartets by the revamped group. Differences between Borodin I and Borodin II have long been noted. For me they centre on the concentration of tonal variety at slow tempo and the visceral nature of some of the playing. The most obvious place to start is the Eighth Quartet which receives a performance of definably greater intensity and cumulative expressive weight from Borodin I. There’s a slight air of a generic response in the later reading, though one would not want to over-stress it. But it’s clear that the process of absorption in which Dubinsky and Alexandrov had played so conspicuous a part had not been fully realised by the new teaming. As a result the slow movements don’t quite reveal their full stature; the players tend to make typically warm and beautiful gestures but their tonal warmth does not fully equate penetrating stylistic acumen.

I am going to take the slightly unusual step of concentrating on the last quartets and contrasting Borodin II with the recordings of the Taneyev Quartet – the group that premiered No.15 – and the Beethoven, whose long association with the quartets garnered many dedications from the composer. I’ve covered much of the same ground in my review of two single CD Melodiya releases by the Beethoven, so those who may have read that review should guard against déjà vu. The comments I make on the limitations of Borodin II apply to the corpus of the works, with the proviso of course that the first incarnation of the Borodin (on Chandos) only recorded Quartets 1-13. And that the new Melodiya box of Borodin II sees them join forces with Richter for the Piano Quintet Op.57 and the Prokofiev Quartet for the Two Pieces for string Octet Op.11. Speaking of the former the Piano Quintet contrasts powerfully with the heady and driven performance generated by the composer and the Beethoven Quartet, the group that had given the premiere. Nevertheless Richter and the Borodin themselves generate just the right balance between the lissomly reflective and the percussively attacking. The beautifully balanced string weight in the Fugue is a constant pleasure and a cause for admiration as well. Melancholy and tactile the five musicians evince very much the right feel for this majestic work. As noted the composer’s own recording is a necessary acquisition but the addition of this performance in the Melodiya set is a veritable bonus.

To put it broadly and somewhat crudely the Beethoven Quartet performances, also newly released on Melodiya, stand at a rough mid point tonally between the warmly vibrated intensity of the Borodin II and the bleak leanness of the Taneyev. In the case of the Eleventh Quartet the Beethoven take a considerably quicker view of the music than the Borodin in their traversals, though their tempo relationships are much more stable than that of the Taneyev. Each group takes a radically different stance, vesting each movement with a profoundly different sense of weight and sensibility. Listening to each group is a richly rewarding if sometimes frustrating affair. When it comes to the final movement the Beethoven is decisive, quick and almost brutal in its response. The Taneyev remains raw and edgy-toned with an uneasy rasp to its corporate sonority. Borodin II, predictably, takes the most horizontal view, richly keening of tone.

The two-movement Twelfth was dedicated to the Beethoven’s first violinist Dmitri Tsiganov, the man responsible for the violin and piano arrangements of the Preludes. It strikes me that Borodin II, notwithstanding their close association with this repertoire, cedes to the Beethoven in matters of tempo and direction. The intensity and angular folkloric element seems to be to be better integrated in the Beethoven’s recording. And the long second movement works better as an architectural entity as well in the hands of Shostakovich’s most intimate associates; nor do they respond to the rather martial goose-stepping of the Taneyev whose metrical drive sounds hard-pressed.

The Thirteenth Quartet is once more a locus of profoundly differing approaches. It’s wise not to be prescriptive or definitive about such matters as well. The Taneyev race through it in 15:22, the Borodin in 1981 take a far more sedate 19:56 – a dramatically different, radical difference – and the Beethoven in 1971, at around the time of the premiere, took 18:10. The Taneyev sound ruthless and rebellious. The Beethoven is more reflective and mournful. And the Borodin, 1981 vintage, find something spiritual, almost a sense of piety, in the music. Their intense raptness is profoundly impressive with blanched tone and bleached feeling alternating with great string weight. Nevertheless the Beethoven gave the premiere of a work dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, the quartet’s violist who died in 1972, and their greater incision brings a moving sense of direction and proportion to the quartet.

The Beethoven approaches the opening of No.14 with something like joy, the lightly sprung rhythm meshing with lightly bowed and wristy affection. The Taneyev enjoy a darker melos, more abrupt, and the Borodin 1981 vintage less easy going, more urgent and rhythmically decisive. The Beethoven contrasts this with by far the most aristocratic and Mravinskian Adagio I’ve ever heard. It makes no superfluous gestures, cuts to the quick but makes its point with decisive energy. This patrician reading finds no favour with the warmth of the Borodin or the tonal austerity of the Taneyev.

The last quartet gives all players a problem in extrapolating its six adagios. Here, once again, the Beethoven seems to me to reach into the music as few have or could. The opening movement, that long unbroken span, is unfolded with a beauty tinged with resignation. The depth is palpable, the intensity generated entirely musically. By now Tsiganov was the only original member still playing in the quartet but they’d acquired an excellent cellist in Yevgeni Altman. The Borodin always played this beautifully but there’s something just a touch too keen about their playing here and intensity dissipates through over promotion of expressive weight. The Taneyev play well but there’s little of the Beethoven’s beauty, though you’ll find their second movement uncompromisingly stark and aggressive. The Beethoven by direct comparison are the more human, the Borodin taking something of an equidistant position. When we come to the final movement we find these same differences of approach. The Borodin is marvellous and catches the passionate strangeness of it. But the Beethoven find something of a Janáček-like sweep and an altogether graver protocol. Though the Taneyev premiered this work, and their performance merits the closest study, they don’t quite manage to mediate between its acerbity and reflection quite as well as the other two groups.

So, in conclusion, and the only logical conclusion I can reach in the circumstances, is that Borodin admirers need both sets; the partial Chandos cycle and this one. The Melodiya box is a card affair and rather prosaically done – you may find individual discs slipping out so take care. If you have to have one cycle and can augment from other performances Borodin I is the more incisively and penetratingly done and the one to prefer, even acknowledging the missing last two quartets.

Jonathan Woolf

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Kondrashin conducts the Fifteen Symphonies
Now with The Sun Shines on Our Motherland op. 90 The Execution of Stepan Razin op. 119 Violin Concerto Nr.2 (with David Oistrakh) Artur Eisen, bass (13); Evgenia Tselovalnik (sop) (14); Evgeny Nesterenko, (bass) (14) Choirs of the Russian Republic/Alexander Yourlov (2, 3, 13) Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin Rec. Moscow 19 July 1972 (1); 29 Nov 1972 (2); 12 Nov 1972 (3); 1962 (4); 27 Mar 1968 (5); 15 Sept 1967 (6); 7 Mar 1975 (7); 4 Nov 1967 (8); 20 Mar 1965 (9); 24 Sept 1973 (10); 9 July 1973 (11); 13 Dec 1972 (12); 23 Aug 1974 (13); 24 Nov 1974 (14); 27 May 1975 (15). ADD MELODIYA MEL CD 10 01065

When released by Aulos Rob Barnett named these recordings the Gold Standard but it seemed impossible to get hold of the discs. These have now been re-released by Melodiya. ... see original review Purchase here £50 postage paid.





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