Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Chamber Music
String Quartet No.3 Op.73 [33:33]
Jerusalem Quartet
rec. 24-27 November 2000, Potton Hall, Suffolk
String Quartet No.7 Op.108 [13:27]
Atrium String Quartet
rec. 11-14 April 2003, Potton Hall, Suffolk
Cello Sonata Op.40 [23:04]
Heinrich Schiff (cello); Aci Bertoncelj (piano)
rec. 17-18 November 1983, Evangelische Kirke Eckenhagen
Piano Trio No.1 Op.8 [12:20]
Chung Trio
rec. 12-17 December 1988, The Academy of Arts and Letters New York
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.67 [27:42]
Eroica Trio
rec. 5-9 March 1998 St Stephen’s Church, Tiburo, California
Piano Quintet Op.57 [31:08]
Members of the Nash Ensemble
rec. November 1990, Henry Wood Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS 6 87667 2 [71:30+72:34]

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. The 1st 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 Eroica contributions.

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.

Gavin Dixon