Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet. No. 1 in C major, Op.49 (1938) [14.43]
String Quartet. No. 2 in A major, Op.68 (1944) [35.18]
String Quartet. No. 3 in F major, Op.73 (1946) [31.17]
String Quartet. No. 4 in D major, Op.83 (1949) [25.18]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op.92 (1941) [22.10]
Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganastra and Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins); Per Rostad (viola); Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. Foelinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois, 18-20 November 2011 (Nos 1 & 2), 23-24 July 2010 (No. 3) and 29-31 August 2011 (No. 4, Prokofiev)
CEDILLE CDR 90000 130 [75.37 + 53.40]
The Pacifica Quartet has received rave reviews for its performances of the Shostakovich string quartets in the concert hall. This two-disc set comprises the second instalment of their recordings of these works. The first volume, issued last year, included the Quartets Nos. 5-8 (see review). Presumably the remainder are to follow in due course.
The players start the First Quartet at quite a brisk pace, considerably faster than either the Shostakovich Quartet or the Brodsky Quartet in their complete cycles. Their speed has more in common with that adopted by the Emerson Quartet in theirs. At their faster speed they make less of the dynamic extremes that their competitors find. This is a more light-hearted reading, reflecting the innocence of the young composer’s first essay in the medium. It is a valid and well-considered approach, but it lacks a degree of involvement. The influences of the classical style are given precedence over any more personal statements in the work. However their playing of the Second Quartet finds much more depth, and is superbly heartfelt especially in the beautiful Recitative and Romance slow movement. They launch themselves headlong into the following Valse. In the final movement they give plenty of weight to the statement of the opening theme of the variations. That said, the Emerson gives even more, anticipating the more anguished works that were to come and helped by the richer and more resonant DG recording.
The Third Quartet, which begins the second disc, is given a beautiful sense of mischief by the Pacifica players. This suits the music very well. The Emerson players are more straightforward here, and some of the humour is missing. The performance here makes the tragedy which ensues more unexpected, and gives it greater emotional impact. The attack on the stinging chords which open the third movement are forceful without moving outside the realms of chamber music. The Emersons sound almost orchestral in the weight they give to the music here. The Fourth Quartet - included with the First andSecond on the first disc - is given a marvellous performance. There’s a nice line in sly irony for the finale which the Emersons do not match.
As with the first volume in this cycle, the second comes coupled with a quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries. This serves to set the whole oeuvre in its historical context - hence presumably the CD subtitle The Soviet Experience. Unlike Shostakovich, whose fifteen quartets enshrine a wealth of personal experience, Prokofiev’s two essays in the genre are largely peripheral to his output. The Second Quartet, written at the same time as the composer was working on War and Peace, employs a number of traditional Kabardinian melodies - from the region to which Prokofiev was evacuated during the German invasion. In fact there are certainly deeper elements here. These are fully realised by the players with some extremely agitated passages delivered with all the required panache.

The booklet notes by Elizabeth Wilson are extremely comprehensive - twenty pages of text. They give great amounts of detail on the construction of each of the works here along with plentiful information on the genesis of the pieces themselves. Incidentally these notes correctly state that Shostakovich started writing the First Quartet in May 1938 ready for its first performance in October of that year. The copyright date on the Schirmer edition of the score is given in the booklet as 1935 - I can find no authority for this. Perhaps it is a simple misprint. 

The playing is excellent throughout, with no sense of strain and perfect tuning between the various members of the quartet. They can well withstand the close balance of the recorded sound to which they are subjected. Reviewers of the concert performances by the Pacifica players have hailed them as some of the best ever given. One can well understand their reasoning. Even the understated delivery of the earlier quartets is clearly designed to highlight the development of Shostakovich’s style throughout the cycle. It falls into a deliberate pattern. On a personal note I find the greater involvement of the Emerson Quartet - and their more reverberant recording - more satisfying. Others may react differently. Certainly there is much to admire in these excellent, civilised and deeply considered performances. The Shostakovich quartets can well tolerate a variety of different interpretations, as is the nature of all great music.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey 

Much to admire in these excellent, civilised and deeply considered readings.