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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
String Quartet No.3 in F, op.73 (1946) [32:43]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913–1976)
String Quartet No. 2 in C, op.36 (1945) [33:01]
Jupiter Quartet (Nelson Lee (violin); Meg Freivogel McDonough (violin); Liz Freivogel (viola);, Dan McDonough (cello))
rec. 6–8 August 2006, Banff Music Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada. DDD
MARQUIS 77471813712 [65:55] 
Experience Classicsonline

This is a very sensible coupling, the two composers were friends, in later life, and the works date from exactly the same time. But what different works they are!

Shostakovich’s Quartet was quickly denounced, after its première, for not glorifying Soviet participation in the Great Patriotic War. Consequently, the composer gave the five movements titles which, supposedly, showed that he was presenting the various processes which lead to and from war. Most sensibly, he dropped the titles as they were not germane to the music. This is so obviously pure music, existing for its own sake, and what a fine quartet it is; the spotlight has tended to shine on the later quartets and the first four have never received the attention they are due, which, when listening to as good a performance as committed as this one, is mystifying. 

There is a feel of childish innocence in the first movement, but with the tongue firmly stuck in the cheek for the odd moment when Shostakovich launches himself into a fugue. The second movement is in similar vein, and bridges the gap between first and third movements with an easy-going feel, punctuated twice by the stab of staccato chords and a cello ascent into its uppermost register. The third is the only fast movement in the work, a bluff, spiky, scherzo, which never rests. The slow movement is stark, and all too brief, and gives way to what starts as a typically disarming, innocent, moderato and soon the tension is screwed up, but just as quickly we are back in the innocent music of the opening, which leads into a quiet, reflective coda – much in the manner of the finale of the 8th Symphony. 

This 3rd Quartet is a very personal document which has, perhaps, been overlooked as being of insufficient stature in Shostakovich’s output. Nothing could be further from the truth – this is a fine piece of writing and is a deeply felt work, its integrity being shattered only twice by disruptive elements which are brought to book by the intense lyricism of the body of the composition. 

By the time he came to write his 2nd Quartet, Benjamin Britten was well established as a major talent in British music; Peter Grimes had been premièred in June 1945, and was soon to be performed in America (conducted by Bernstein at Tanglewood), and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was just round the corner. Written, partly, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, a favourite composer of Britten’s, the Quartet is in three movements, with a very large final Chaconne, which Britten calls Chacony (the old spelling of the word) interspersed with cadenzas for three of the four instruments. 

This is a much more complex work then the 1st Quartet, stretching the performers to their limits and leaving you gasping at Britten’s endless invention. The first two movements are over before they have really begun but they preface, quite perfectly, the magisterial Chacony which tops the work with a powerful and decisive coda. Every time I hear an instrumental work by Britten I lament that he gave so much time to the voice and less and less time to absolute music. With a performance of this stature one is left all the more bereft at the lack of instrumental works in Britten’s output. 

These are fine performances indeed. The Jupiter Quartet has won many awards, perhaps most importantly the First Prize in the 8th Banff International String Quartet Competition (2004), where it was also awarded the Szekely Prize for the best performance of a Beethoven quartet. This is its first recording and what a disk it is. The players hit exactly the right tone for the many and various moods of Shostakovich’s work and after the quixotic and mercurial opening movements of Britten’s work hold everything in check as they build the mighty structure of the Chacony. This is superb music making and a sheer joy to listen to, I found myself simply sitting back and enjoying the disk instead of thinking of what I was going to write. 

The recording is clear and precise allowing you to hear every inspiration of composer and performer alike and the Quartet obviously feels very strongly about these works; their passion, devotion and respect for these works is conveyed to the listener. 

Anton von Webern, himself a cellist, said, “Quartet playing is the most glorious music making there is” and there is no better proof positive of that statement than this disk.

Bob Briggs



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