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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets

No.11 in F minor Op.122 (1966) [16:18]
No.12 in D flat major Op. 133 (1968) [26:10]
No.13 in B flat major (1970) [18:11]
Beethoven String Quartet
rec. Moscow 1969-71
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 00862 [59:36]

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets

No.14 in F sharp major Op.142 (1973) [24:57]
No.15 in E flat major Op.144 (1974) [37:17]
Beethoven String Quartet
rec. Moscow 1974-75
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 00863 [62:20]


These two volumes restore the Beethoven's recordings of the late Shostakovich Quartets to international currency. Though their recordings are highly respected, not least for the long and intimate professional relationship with the composer who dedicated so many quartets to them collectively or individually, one senses that the various Borodin performances have long since eclipsed them in general esteem. Given the higher profile of that group, not least on disc and in the West, that's inevitable. And given the warmer sonority of the successive Borodin groups and their more overt expression that's also not surprising.

Still, the Beethoven Quartet recorded the set on LP and were also taped in an almost complete cycle for radio - the Fifth is absent - which can found on Consonance 81-3005-9. Their performances are best measured against those of the Borodin (1962-67, incomplete) and 1978-83 now newly released on Melodiya Mel CD 10 01077 and reviewed by me here. And one must on no account omit reference to the cycle recorded by the Taneyev Quartet, whose set has been remastered by Aulos. The Taneyev famously premiered the last quartet after Sergei Shirinsky of the Beethoven Quartet had died following a rehearsal.

Melodiya's own Beethoven Quartet cycle is an impressive one. These late quartets were written between 1966 and 1974 and recorded between 1969 and 1971 and 1974-75. To put it broadly and somewhat crudely the Beethoven stands at a rough mid-point tonally between the warmly vibrated intensity of the Borodin 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 on the seven movements, vesting them 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. The Borodin, predictably, takes the most horizontal view, richly keening of tone.

The two-movement Twelfth was dedicated to the group's first violinist Dmitri Tsiganov, the man responsible for the violin and piano arrangements of the Preludes. It strikes me that the Borodin, 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 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 incisiveness brings a moving sense of direction and proportion to the quartet.

The second volume gives us the last two quartets. They approach 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 seem 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 Borodins 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 are marvellous and catch the passionate strangeness of it. But the Beethoven find something of a Janaček-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.

The recordings were very serviceable products of their time. They were not especially warmly recorded, which perhaps accentuates a degree of edge to the corporate sonority, though they're nothing like as razory as the Taneyev. Lovers of warm sonorities would of course turn in preference to the Borodin but that's not the same as recommending a performance. The Beethoven radio performances on Consonance are very important documents but sometimes marred by frequency hums and the like. The commercial recording of the Fifteenth Quartet was available on Le Chant du Monde PR 7254043 coupled with the Glinka Quartet's recording of No.14.

Authority is matched by expression in these performances. If you've not yet heard them I would strongly encourage you to do so.

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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