Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.1 in C major, Op.49 (1938) [16:13]
String Quartet No.3 in F major, Op.73 (1946) [32:04]
String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110 (1960) [22:05]
The Ludwig Quartet (Jena-Philippe Audoli, Elenid Owen (violins), Padrig Fauré (viola), Anne Copéry (cello))
rec. 20-24 June 2011, Saint Marcel Temple, Paris.
CALLIOPE CAL1102 [70:17]
The French Ludwig Quartet has recently celebrated its first 25 years. The current members have been together for over 20 years. Their previous recordings were hailed for homogenous sound and perfect ensemble. They are very active in France and beyond, and do a lot of teaching and coaching other chamber groups. They created several programs where different arts - dance, literature, visual - are combined with music for an artistic symbiosis. One of their recent programs was devoted to the life and work of Shostakovich; they even made a film about him. So they really know their Shostakovich and so it feels.
For someone who wrote fifteen string quartets, Shostakovich was quite a late starter: his First Quartet bears the opus number 49. The first movement is clear and translucent, lightly waltzing over the throbbing accompaniment. The second movement is gloomy and sounds like a Russian song, going from shade to light and back. It is a set of variations, not very adventurous, yet mesmerising. Shostakovich had the magnetic quality of a big composer who can make simple things become very special. This is followed by a very traditional, almost Schubertian, scherzo. The finale is happy, bustling, dense and noisy like a merry-go-round. All the movements are very compact and nothing requires a long attention span, ideal for the average listener. The quartet was composed around the time of the Fifth Symphony. This was when the composer was working to redeem himself in the eyes of the authorities, although sometimes this was tongue-in-cheek.
The performers do not turn the music into superficial light listening. Yet, unlike some super-serious interpretations that inflate the philosophy and dig out suffering where there is none, the Ludwigs emphasize both the seriousness and the beauty. The opening movement is full-voiced: this is ballet, not tip-toeing. The performance is warm and a bit sweetened. The two middle movements have a well-measured temperature, and the tempi are natural. The second is properly sparse and bleak. The scherzo is very spacious, quite three-dimentional. The credit should probably be shared with the recording engineers: several polyphonic levels of depth are well perceived in parallel. In the cheerful finale, they go light and nimble. Even in the loud parts, the music is quite lean and energetic. It avoids monotonous hustle and demonstrates a sense of structure. There are moments of almost orchestral fullness. Overall, the reading of this quartet is very balanced, without any bias; an excellent mainstream reading. Comparing this with the classic set by the Borodin Quartet, I do not see much difference in tempi and accents. That said, the Ludwigs produce more excitement; they are more extravert and their recording is more detailed and deep.
The Third Quartet is my personal favorite of the Fifteen. It strikes the perfect balance between hard and soft, traditional and innovative, feeling and structure, sense and sensibility. It starts somewhat playful, as if promising something sunny and pleasant, like the First Quartet. The first movement is a light and cheerful polka. The main theme is as simple as can be, yet the composer builds a double fugue on it in the development section. It is possible that his point was to show the importance of simple joys as the foundation of our life. The second movement is based on broken triads, and has a feeling of disjointed connections, things falling apart: a ghostly, bitter dance. Hell breaks loose in the third movement, a wild and painful March of Death. We are reminded that this is a post-war quartet. The slow fourth movement is like a requiem. The feelings of loss and mourning suffuse this dark threnody. This is the ultimate state of grief when one already has no power left for emotions: this is past all emotions, the bare bones of the soul. The finale gradually leads us out of darkness and despair into the light. It has some parallels with the first movement. The first two subjects paint not joy but relief; then comes the third theme, merry and careless like a popular tune. The ghosts of the previous movements appear to haunt us: can we be merry while having these memories? Some thoughtful reflections follow, and finally the music dissolves in the skies of the soul.
The performance of the first movement is graceful and careful, sotto voce, with effective rubato. The last minute is thrilling. The second movement is fast and ballet-like, giving the music features of a grotesque minuet. Whereas the Borodin was slow and mysterious, talking about abstract fears, the Ludwig paints more realistic dangers. The aggression comes together with the tempo, and the music is evocative of some diabolic clock. Any trace of innocence is lost in the quiet places; they become outright sinister. Their third movement is fast and strong. The music is constantly loud yet there is excellent shaping of the phrases. They do not overheat the fourth movement yet keep the emotions flowing. This music is tired of mourning but cannot escape; the performance is appropriately modest and austere. The finale is again on the faster side but not overmuch. Here the Borodin Quartet has a static and reflective character; the Ludwigs show more angst and pain. We experience the perspective of a younger person, perhaps. This is a very expressive reading, vivid, almost hallucinogenic.
The Eighth Quartet is certainly the most popular of the cycle and for good reason. It was written in just three days, but the idea was probably gestating in composer’s head for a long time before that. It is very personal and, according to his daughter, the composer dedicated it to himself, although the official dedication is “To the victims of fascism and war”. Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph, and there is evidence that he planned to commit suicide around this time. Shostakovich’s music is often autobiographical and auto-descriptive - never more than here. The work contains several self-quotations and references to his milestone works, such as the First and Fifth symphonies, or the First Cello Concerto. The entire quartet is a monumental, elaborate set of variations on one simple four-note motif.
The first movement introduces the basic brick of the entire work: the composer’s “signature” motif DSCH - his initials (the notes D, E flat, C, B natural - in German notation). It is a slow, thoughtful narrative. The second movement is violent and angry. The pressure becomes unbearable and then explodes in a Jewish song that the composer had used in his Second Piano Trio. Shostakovich liked Jewish music for its mixture of happiness and tragedy, but there is little happiness here. The DSCH motto swirls and darts in an image of unstoppable brute force, as a leaf in a hurricane. All of a sudden the picture changes into a queer, phantom Scherzo - a sinister rondo, a kind of hypnotic Mephisto-Waltz. If the second movement conjured real, vivid, aggressive terror, the third confronts the fears that lurk in corners, the fears of waiting and anticipation. Such dreads are not always unfounded, and at the beginning of the fourth movement we hear the much feared “knock-knock” on the door in the night: “they came for me!”. The quote from the revolutionary song “You fell as victims in the fateful fight” here, as I see it, is not speaking about the victims of the Revolution, but of the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror, including the composer himself. Not for nothing is the beautiful line from “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, a tragic opera with a tragic fate, woven in. Seamlessly we move into the fifth movement, without a change of character: it is a long fugato based on DSCH. The music is long-winded, slow, joyless, depressive.
The Ludwig’s performance of the first movement is unhurried, deep and resonant, with a hint of impatience. It is not subdued or detached, but viscous, like the quiet moment before a big storm. We feel that something will start in a second, and the dread of it is mixed with the wish for it to start and be done with. Again, my main comparison was with the Borodin Quartet. The Borodins clearly separate the first and second subjects in the second movement, making the Jewish song sound like an answer to the stormy reality of the first theme: “What will you do when the angry tempest overthrows you, and it is scary and painful?” - “I will rejoice through my tears, will be humane, and will keep my path forward!”. The Ludwig quartet plays it more uniformly; the themes just follow each other without any sense of question and answer. In the third movement, they show less mystery and more direct horror. The picture is more visual, yet some places are almost tender. It is not a sharp and raw performance, not at all a walk on broken glass. The sound is quite warm, actually, which could seem unnatural for this music, but it works. The rendition of the two final parts is gloomy yet powerful. The knock at the door is scary, and the “Lady Macbeth” motif yearns. The fugato part is very personal, deep and thought-provoking.
The most gripping and elegant performance of the Eight Quartet that I’ve heard was done by the Kronos Quartet on their “Black Angels” CD. Their performance has the odor of a Hollywood screen adaptation; compared to them, the Ludwigs are more natural.
Overall, in these works the Ludwig Quartet does not open any new horizons or present any new views on the subject but this music is so strong it does not need any. These are powerful and faithful performances. There are intense, white-hot moments, but unlike like the Kronos they do not blast the music. Instead, they are wild only where needed, and expose the blinding starkness of Shostakovich’s writing, desperate and sarcastic. I feel deep understanding of the composer’s intentions in their playing.
The musical weight is well distributed over the entire vertical line, without bias towards the violins, as happens in some recordings. The voice of the cello is low and rumbles like thunder, which gives a good foundation, and sometimes creates apposite droning effects. The cello’s voice is well heard, but also it’s very clean, and does not produce “dirt” in dense passages.
The booklet, in French and English, does not provide an adequate coverage of the music, at least not sufficient for first contact. It tells a little about the performers and quotes a few reviews.
Powerful and faithful performances.
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich stirng quartets