The Soviet Experience - Volume 1
String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 (1952) [31:45]
String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 (1956) [25:38]
String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960) [12:13]
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [21:56]
Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
String Quartet No.13 in A minor, Op.86 (1949) [25:36]
Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra (violin); Sibbi Bernhardsson (violin); Masumi Per Rostad (viola); Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. 24-25 July, 3-5 September 2010, 1 February and 14-15 May 2011, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, USA
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 127 [60:05]
The Pacifica’s plan to give the Chicago premičre of all Shostakovich’s Fifteen String Quartets over 10 concerts during the 2010/11 concert season was the inspiration behind the Soviet Arts Experience festival in Chicago. Lead by the University of Chicago in 2010-12 the Soviet Arts Experience is an extensive collaborative project uniting a number of the city’s arts institutions. It serves as a showcase for works created by artists under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union. In the spirit of the ‘Soviet Arts Experience’ the Pacifica and Cedille intend to release a cycle of music from Shostakovich and his contemporaries. This first volume comprises four String Quartets from Shostakovich and a single Quartet by Nikolai Miaskovsky (Myaskovsky).
The Pacifica first came to my attention in 2005 with their beautifully played set of the complete Mendelssohn String Quartets. Their playing exuded style and sophistication, an abundance of character and warm expression. Especially remarkable is the sweetness of tone and the silvery timbre of Simin Ganatra, the first violin. That set was recorded in 2002/04 in the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (Cedille CDR 90000 082). They are quartet in residence at the University of Illinois and is also resident performing artists at the University of Chicago. On the evidence of a number of critically acclaimed recordings and splendid recital performances they can be ranked alongside the finest chamber music performers on the international stage.
Shostakovich lived all of his adult life under a Soviet-controlled State. Commencing in 1938 he wrote his fifteen String Quartets over a 36 year period. This is the same number of quartets as he wrote symphonies. All were premičred soon after their composition with the exception of the Quartet No.4 of 1949 that had to wait four years before it was introduced. It is often said that the cycle reflects the principal events in Shostakovich’s life. The best known and most frequently played is the Eight from 1960. The quartets contain both numerical and musical references with the Eighth in particular containing numerous musical citations and repeated use of the composer’s personal motif making up the initials D-S-C-H.
The String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 comes from one of the most extreme periods of Stalinist terror in Russia. It was premičred just after Stalin’s death in late 1953 but had been written a year earlier, in 1952. At the start of the first movement the viola’s first four notes are a combination of the composer’s personal D-S-C-H motif. A complex and challenging work, the three movement quartet is performed without a break. In the central movement Andante/Andantino, attacca - the emotional core - the Pacifica convey a sense of total desolation like a bleak landscape, ghostly and unforgiving.
When the String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 was written in 1956 Stalin had been dead for three years. Composers experienced a thawing of the cultural restrictions. At this time Shostakovich was emotionally distraught due to the sudden death of his wife Nina in the winter of 1954 with the additional grief of his mother dying the next year. However, in 1956 shortly before completing the score Shostakovich had quickly married Margarita Kainova. Cast in four movements the generally melodious score is lighter, certainly far less complex than its predecessor and it conveys a restrained beauty. In the third movement - Lento, attacca, the soul of the quartet, a Passacaglia - the playing has a deep concentration and intensity ensuring an uncomfortable journey and an aching fatigue.
The marriage to Margarita was unsuccessful and they were soon divorced in 1959. Composed in 1960 he dedicated his String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 to his first wife Nina who been dead for five years. Significant is his choice of F sharp minor - a key which is conventionally related with pain and suffering. It seems appropriate in reflecting the composer’s grief. The score is the shortest of all Shostakovich’s quartets and lasts here for just over12 minutes. This concise three movement structure with its conflicting moods has been said to mirror the ups and downs of his marriage to Nina. There’s remarkably expressive playing from the Pacifica in the Finale marked Allegro - Allegretto (Adagio) commencing with a Fugue - wild, angry and briskly energetic. It represents what could be described as the barking of an aggressive dog. From 2:40 the music calms and regains composure yet a sense of unease is never far away.
Extremely popular in recital and on record is the String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op.
110 from 1960. It bears a dedication to ‘The Victims of Fascism and War’. It was written, it seems, in a just a few days whilst on a working trip outside Soviet Russia in the Communist State of East Germany near Dresden. Shostakovich had seen at first hand the destruction that Allied bombing had inflicted on Dresden. Set with numerous self-quotations including the near incessant use of the D-S-C-H motif the score could be described as a musical autobiography of Shostakovich. The ferocious short second movement Allegro molto, attacca is strikingly played: just bursting with aggressive and dynamic energy. After the flurry of the D-S-C-H motif I was stuck by the abrupt appearance at 0:55 of the Jewish theme from the composer’s Second Piano Trio. Of significant impact are disconcerting fortissimo chords that open the fourth movement Largo, attacca. This is followed by music of a deep and uncomfortable quality that seems to reflect weariness and disillusion. In the Finale marked Largo the Pacifica create a heart-wrenching feeling of intense desolation and wretchedness. This is perhaps a representation of the composer’s world-weariness. Conspicuously the D-S-C-H motif is heard repeatedly throughout with the movement virtually built around it.
The first set of the complete Shostakovich quartets that I regularly played was from the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. Their performances recorded at the All Saints Church Church, Petersham, Surrey in 1975/77 are energetic and enthusiastic and still are worthy of acclaim today on Decca 455 776-2. Muscular playing of greater dynamic extremes is a feature of the complete set from the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon 475 7407. Recorded in 1994/98 at the Harris Concert Hall, in Aspen, Colorado I believe the Emerson set to be the finest available at present.
Actually Polish-born near Warsaw, Nikolai Miaskovsky, an older contemporary of Shostakovich had experience of living for several decades in Russia before it became the Soviet Union. Consequently he was part of the generation of the pre-Revolution composers of Tchaikovsky, Gličre, Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Actually Miaskovsky had studied with the last three. The composer of twenty-seven Symphonies Miaskovsky wrote thirteen String Quartets which is two less than Shostakovich. The last in Miaskovsky’s cycle and his final work altogether is the highly rated String Quartet No.13 in A minor, Op.86 from 1949. At the time of writing the A minor Quartet Miaskovsky knew he was dying and many consider the score as his musical testament. Although Miaskovsky’s A minor Quartet and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 were composed just over a decade apart the listener could be inhabiting a completely different sound-world. Miaskovsky’s score is far more conservative than that of Shostakovich, being mellow and generally optimistic in mood rather than anxiety-laden and tormented. To my ears Miaskovsky’s A minor Quartet has similarities to the quartets of say Borodin and Glazunov. Highly lyrical, the opening movement Moderato of the String Quartet No.13 is passionate and contains a lovely if rather forlorn recurring theme. Briskly rhythmic and upbeat with a poignant central section the Presto fantastico could serve as a Scherzo. Beautifully performed by the Pacifica the slow movement Andante con moto - a romance – is possessed by a heartbreaking mood that could easily depict the pain of lovers parting. Bristling with melody in the Finale, Molto vivo, energico the Pacifica drive the music forward vigorously and with evident determination.
On Cedille in this music from the ‘Soviet Experience’ the Pacifica Quartet provide performances of great merit. Throughout, their playing is splendidly consistent, always intelligent and generates a real intensity that suits Shostakovich’s music perfectly. The performances feel spontaneous and fresh. I was comfortable with the choice of tempi and was delighted by the first class unity and intonation of these performances. The sound quality is most impressive in both clarity and balance. At only sixty minutes playing time another work could certainly have been accommodated.
The essay in the booklet is the finest I have read for some time. The Soviet Experience series has got off to an impressive start with these excellent performances.
Michael Cookson

The Soviet Experience series has got off to an impressive start with these excellent performances.

Review index: Myaskovsky chamber music