Recordings by the
Beethoven Quartet have been only intermittently available in
the West until relatively recently. Their interpretations, particularly
of the music of Shostakovich, have therefore been known more
by reputation than reality. After all, the group gave the first
performances of all the quartets apart from the first and the
last, and would have done so for No. 15 had not the unexpected
death of cellist Sergei Shirinsky intervened during rehearsals.
In due course his place was taken by distinguished cellist Yevgeny
Altman but in the interim Shostakovich, anxious to hear the
work performed and perhaps mindful of his own mortality, awarded
the premiere to the younger Taneyev Quartet. These recordings
are in many cases the first for each work.
Among their Soviet
contemporaries, the interpretations of their slightly younger
colleagues in the Borodin Quartet in this repertoire are much
better known, mainly because the Borodins recorded the Quartets
on several occasions and performed them frequently on tour to
the West. The Borodins also enjoyed a close relationship with
Shostakovich although personal loyalties on the part of the
composer dictated that the premieres went to the Beethovens.
The Taneyev Quartet also recorded a complete cycle for Melodiya
in the 1970s which is available on the Aulos label in excellent
sound; that set also has much to commend it. Among Western ensembles
the virtues of the Fitzwilliams and more recently the St Petersburg
Quartet, for instance, are well documented.
So what can the
playing of the Beethoven Quartet teach us today about Shostakovich?
Well I think there is a directness of approach which is quite
striking. Despite changes of personnel in later years this approach
appears quite remarkably consistent. Speeds are for the most
part quite fast by the standards of some later ensembles. There
is naturally no lingering in a sentimental, post-Testimony
kind of way. Even the later quartets, with their recurring adagio
markings, are kept on the move so that the concentration rarely
lapses. The very immediacy of the recorded sounds helps with
this. Shostakovich knew the individual musicians of the Beethoven
Quartet closely as friends and colleagues – he performed frequently
with them as pianist in his Piano Quintet, for example – and
was well aware of the performing styles of each member. This
is often reflected in the music – for instance in the later
quartets a particular instrument is highlighted as a tribute
to that player and the relevant quartet bears a dedication to
the player in question. At the same time we are left in no doubt
that this is an ensemble which is vastly experienced in working
together to create a united sound picture.
There was a release
some years ago on the Consonance label in rather unsympathetic
transfers. Happily in recent years Melodiya has issued some
of their Shostakovich quartet performances in improved transfers
but minus Nos. 2, 5, 6 and 9. These gaps are now addressed in
this 5CD set from Doremi which although not without its problems
is invaluable in allowing us to enjoy the consistency of the
group’s approach to Shostakovich’s music. This it does in for
the most part very acceptable sound.
Working from what
are presumably commercial LP pressings rather than master tapes,
Jacob Harnoy of Doremi has achieved good results with what in
some cases appears to be some rather intractable material. In
general terms the later the recording the better the sound.
For Quartets Nos. 10-15, recorded between 1965 and 1974, the
sound is perfectly acceptable with little or no background noise. The earlier recordings from the 1950s are more primitive, although
rarely unacceptably so. The ear soon adjusts to any background
noise which is rarely distracting in any case, such is the immediacy
of the music-making. The exception, strangely, is Quartet No.
9, recorded in stereo around 1965. Here the performance is accompanied
by a constant low-level background rasp which some listeners
may find more intrusive than I did.
of this set could have been better given its price, with only
a leaflet giving limited notes about the works and performers.
One attractive feature is a colour photo of all the original
Melodiya LP labels from which presumably the transfers were
made. There are no specific recording dates given, which is
a bit remiss given the historical interest of this issue. More
information about the music itself would also have been welcome.
As a filler we are
also offered the Beethoven and Komitas Quartets joining forces
in the early two pieces for string octet.
This set is not
cheap (£43.99 from Amazon.UK) but as a document for anyone who
values unvarnished honesty of performance and a sense of a direct
link to the mind of the composer it is indispensable.