Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat, Op. 92 (1952) [31:33]
String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op. 144 (1974) [37:06]
Sorrel Quartet
rec. Snape Maltings Concert Hall, January 2004. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10248 [68:49]

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.

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, contrasting richness; the textures later on are haunting and grave. The finale opens with a sinuous fugato, with the sonority expanding - again, 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 influence 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