It's customary to speak of a composer's style, as if it were
set and unchanging; but, in fact, composers tend to try on a
number of styles in the course of a long career, forging various
bits of them into what becomes that composer's distinct voice.
The present brace of first-class performances, volume 5 in the
Chandos Shostakovich quartet cycle, finds the members of the
Sorrel Quartet not only attuned to Shostakovich's overall aesthetic,
but producing a sound appropriate to the very different style
of each work (see also review of Volume 6).
The B-flat quartet is marked, "To the Beethoven String Quartet".
While I assume this dedication refers to an ensemble so named,
it's hard not to think that Shostakovich had that composer in
mind while writing this piece. The generally turbulent mood and
rhythmic impetus certainly recall Classical models; so do the
movement structures, starting with a standard sonata-allegro
(complete with "conventional" exposition repeat!),
closing with a rondo. The Sorrel obliges with full-bowed, big-boned
playing, producing a vigorous sonority which, while dusky and
rich, always remains clear and easy to "hear through",
appropriate to this substantial, expressive score.
The first movement's rocking second subject is poised, with the
bass chord settling vibrantly beneath it. In the development,
an elaborately worked out interplay of various motifs, ostinatos,
and other rhythmic accompaniments, the Sorrel maintains excellent
control. The sustain this throughout the intricate goings-on,
with assured co-ordination, marvelously lightening the texture
- not just the volume - for the subito piano at 7:10.
The slow movement begins with the "thready" sound
of octave harmonics, but the cello entry brings a beautiful,
richness; the textures later on are haunting and grave. The
finale opens with a sinuous fugato, with the sonority expanding
not just getting louder - as the musical weave fills out; the
second theme maintains an undulating curve even as it turns
dissonant. The subsequent build-up is of symphonic scale.
The E-flat minor quartet is an altogether more "modernist" and
disquieting work. The annotator cites Shostakovich's adoption
of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system; I don't hear that - too
many tones too quickly repeated - but I do hear the Austrian's
in the hard-bitten, acerbic phrases, while the fragmented,
pointillistic textures evoke his disciple Webern. The structure,
too, is innovative,
with an eleven-minute opening movement followed by five shorter
ones; one, the Intermezzo, lasting just under two minutes.
The Sorrels adapt accordingly, fashioning their ensemble from
sparer sounds, building up the sonority slowly and thoughtfully.
Nor do they content themselves merely with solving the score's
intricacies of rhythm and tuning: they inflect the rhythms and
draw distinctive character from each motif. The angular waltz
in the Serenade harks back to a similar theme in the composer's
Fourth Symphony; the atmosphere of the Nocturne is almost
soothing, but there's just enough dissonance to keep the listener
off-balance; the "piercing" lines of the Funeral
March are drenched in tone, continuing the mood even into
the recurring chordal, minor textures.
Chandos has a history of over-resonant sound, but here the engineers
strike just the right balance: enough ambience to flesh out the
sonority of the B-flat quartet, not so much as to compromise
the sparse wisps of the E-flat minor.
Stephen Francis Vasta