Music that was written over the course of almost forty years
and recorded over the course of twenty years in three different
countries; it is not a recipe for a coherent programme. The distinctively
acerbic lyricism that characterises so much of Shostakovich’s
music is much in evidence in these works, offering stylistic
continuity from the 1st
Piano Trio of 1923 through
to the 7th
String Quartet of 1960.
And despite the performing ensembles being a more-or-less random
mix of the well-known and the obscure, the standards only fluctuate
slightly between the acceptable and the commendable. The Jerusalem
Quartet still look a youthful bunch today, so they must have
been very young indeed when they recorded the Third Quartet in
2000. Theirs is a more laid-back performance than many, almost
breezy in places - at the opening for example - but never trivial
or flippant. Shostakovich’s dynamic markings are observed
to the letter, with the result that much of the performance is
unusually quiet. They play with commendable precision, but I
suspect some listeners may interpret that as undue restraint.
There is plenty of ebb and flow, but those hoping for a full-blooded,
impassioned reading should probably look elsewhere.
The Atrium String Quartet are another young ensemble, the players
Russian but residing in Germany. Their Seventh Quartet is similar
in many ways to the Jerusalem’s Third: precision, clarity
and fidelity to the score their shared values. But the Atrium
Quartet has a different sound: softer and rounder. That often
contrasts the glassy brittleness of Shostakovich’s quieter
textures, at the opening of the second movement for example,
but it never feels like a compromise to his textural sensibilities.
Heinrich Schiff closes the first disc with the Cello Sonata accompanied
by Aci Bertoncelj. This is the earliest recording on the compilation,
dating from 1983. The sound quality is good without being exceptional,
and the performance is certainly worthy of re-release. Schiff
does not adopt the studied precision of either of the string
quartets, he is just as happy to slide around the fingerboard
in exaggerated portamento for the second movement as he is to
carefully articulate the notes in the finale. And the combination
of passion and restraint in the largo is pure Shostakovich.
The second disc offers the two Piano Trios and the Piano Quintet.
Piano Trio was written in 1923 and demonstrates
Shostakovich’s early grasp of compositional technique.
Artistically and emotionally, though, it has nothing of the depth
of his later work. The Korean Chung Trio, all of whom were also
relatively young when this recording was made in 1988 give a
no-nonsense performance. There are moments of elegantly luminous
piano playing and both the violin and the cello play with absolute
precision, without that ever standing in the way of their expressivity.
Piano Trio no.2 is entrusted to the Eroica Trio, whose variety
of moods, timbres and textures is staggering. The dreamy atmospheric
opening gives way to a measured but never mechanical main theme
in the first movement. As with the string quartets on the first
disc, I should make the proviso that the ever-present clarity,
coming as it does from young performers, could just as easily
be interpreted as naivety. And if you think Shostakovich’s
scherzos should always have teeth, then this may be a little
tame for you. The macabre Jewish dance of the finale is another
case in point, crystal-clear textures throughout, but such a
high level of precision is bound to have its detractors. It gets
grittier towards the end though; this isn’t a trivial reading,
but it’s one where clarity comes first.
There is less of that clarity in the Nash Ensemble’s Piano
Quintet. They have more players, of course, and the sound quality
does them no favours, but in general this is chamber music performed
as if it were orchestral music, painted in broad, sweeping strokes.
Or perhaps that impression just comes from the comparison with
the other ensembles on the compilation. The Nash Ensemble’s
contribution to the end of this second disc is much like that
of Schiff at the end of the first. Both are mature performers
concluding programmes made up of younger groups. It is not a
bad performance, although there are intonation issues here and
there, and stylistically it sits uneasily with the Chung and
The six works on these two discs were recorded in three different
countries - Germany, the UK and America - over the course of
twenty years. There is a marked variety in the sound quality,
but rather than distinguishing the older recordings from the
newer, it separates the American recordings (the piano trios)
from the European ones. I suspect, as with the performances,
the issue of clarity comes down to taste. The reason the American
recordings seem so much clearer is that the engineers there were
not after atmosphere. Be that as it may, the American recordings
are the ones I would return to soonest, especially the Second
Trio, where the Eroica players really perform to the strengths
of the recording technology. That and the Jerusalem’s Third
Quartet easily justify the low price tag.