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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74 Harp (1809) [29:17]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 92 (1952) [30:41]
Atrium Quartet (Alexey Naumenko, Anton Ilyunin (violins); Dmitry Pitulko
(viola); Anna Gorelova (cello))
rec. 18-22 February 2008, L’Eglise de Bon Secours, Paris, France.  DDD
Experience Classicsonline

The disc at hand is volume 7 in a series of performances on this label by string quartets who have won first prize at the International String Quartet Competition in Bordeaux.  Other performances in this series include those by such up-and-coming quartets as the Belcea and Psophos. 
The young Atrium Quartet was founded in 2000 in St. Petersburg. This is apparently their third album.  Their first, recorded in 2002 in St. Petersburg, included Shostakovich No. 5 and Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 4.  I have not heard that one and indeed could only find it on the Atrium’s own website without a label name or number.  Their official first recording was made for EMI in 2004 as part of that label’s Debut series.  It contained quartets by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich, but not the Op. 92.  The booklet also mentions a recording in Leipzig of Shostakovich (quartet not specified) and Debussy, but this is not listed on the quartet’s website.  The booklet states some of the more obvious reasons why Beethoven and Shostakovich make logical disc partners.  For example, as far as the string quartet genre is concerned, both composers dominated their eras and, all but the last of Shostakovich’s quartets were premiered by the Beethoven Quartet!  There are many other parallels between the works of the two composers and so it is fitting that they share the same disc.  That said, most CD collectors would probably go for complete sets of the quartets of these composers individually rather than mixing them.  With so many sets of these works available by some of the most renowned string quartets, a new recording such as this would have to be special to merit serious consideration.  While fans of the Atrium Quartet would no doubt want this CD, what about the general listener who may already have these works or is collecting individual instalments of ongoing series by this or that group?  I can state right away, that the Atrium Quartet’s performances here are up there with the best and can be heartily recommended to anyone wanting this particular coupling.
Beethoven’s Op. 74 Quartet is one of those that tend to fall between two stools.  It lacks the dramatic power and innovations of the preceding “Razumovsky” quartets and the depths to come in the series of late works.  In this way it is like the Eighth Symphony coming between two grander symphonies or the Fourth Symphony between two giants.  The quartet is more lyrical than dramatic and contains a rather benign sense of humor.  It is a delightful work with memorable themes and an innovative form.  While it is in four movements, the last two are connected by only the briefest of pauses and the work ends on two quiet chords that seem rather indecisive.  The first movement is marked by its frequent use of pizzicato, hence the quartet’s “Harp” nickname.  I compared the Atrium’s performance with that by the award-winning Takács Quartet on Decca. 
Overall, the Atrium is somewhat swifter and lighter in their approach to this work.  This is especially beneficial in the third movement scherzo, which goes like the wind but is articulated with the utmost clarity.  Conversely, the slower tempo that the Takács adopts for the second movement brings out a greater depth of expression in the music.  The Atrium’s performance, in contrast, has a nice flow with the more moderate tempo.  The movement is marked Adagio ma non troppo.  Where the Takács emphasizes the adagio marking, the Atrium observes the “ma non troppo” indication more markedly.  Both quartets leave nothing to be desired in matters of technical ability, intonation or style.
For the Shostakovich Op. 92 Quartet I compared the Atrium with my benchmark recording by the Borodin Quartet (EMI/Melodiya) and a newer version by the Emerson Quartet (DG).  Here the Atrium is on home territory; the fact that they also recorded this work before would seem to give them some ownership rights to the work.  Shostakovich had already composed nine symphonies before his fifth quartet and he was to write ten more quartets.  The Op. 92 resembles the symphony to follow (No. 10, Op. 93) in its use of Shostakovich’s DSCH initials as a theme, using the German notation: D-Es-C-H = D-E flat-C-B.  The powerfully rhythmic Allegretto non troppo first movement is followed by one of the composer’s most inward, subtle slow movements.  The finale marked Moderato includes references to themes from the first two movements and ends quietly.  The movements are played without pause.  The Atrium Quartet does this remarkable work complete justice.  Their approach is more like the Borodin’s than the Emerson’s.  With the Emerson, everything tends toward the dramatic and their direct approach works well in the faster sections.  In the slow movement, however, I prefer the Atrium’s and Borodin’s greater subtlety and withdrawn quality.  If my allegiance remains with the Borodin Quartet in general for this music, I also have great respect for this new account.  It is fully the equal of their illustrious predecessor’s.  I should add that all three of these performances are technically beyond reproach.
I can thus welcome this new disc, especially for those who do not possess complete sets of the Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets.  Competition in these works is indeed fierce, but the Atrium Quartet need not fear comparison with the best of it.
Leslie Wright


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