The plan by the Pacifica Quartet to perform the
Chicago première of all Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen String
Quartets over 10 concerts during the 2010/11 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 Chicago arts institutions. It serves as a platform to showcase art,
music, dance and theatre all created by artists under - and in response
to - the Politburo of the Soviet Union.
In the spirit of the ‘Soviet Arts Experience’ the Pacifica
Quartet for Cedille has been releasing a cycle of string quartets from
Shostakovich and other twentieth-century Soviet composers. The first
volume comprises four Shostakovich 5-8 and the String Quartet No.
13 in A minor
, Op. 86
by Nikolai Miaskovsky (Myaskovsky).
Volume two consists of four Shostakovich 1-4
String Quartet No. 2 in F major
Op. 92. This latest third
volume contains Shostakovich 9-12 together with a single work by Mieczysław
Weinberg: his String Quartet No. 6 in E minor
, Op. 35. The Cedille
website shows that the fourth and final volume will give us Shostakovich
13-15 with Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3
. This is due
out in October 2013.
The Pacifica first came to my attention in 2005 with their beautifully
played set of the complete Mendelssohn String Quartets
. I found
their playing to exude style and sophistication and an abundance of
character and warm expression. Especially remarkable is the sweetness
of tone and the silvery timbre of leader Simin Ganatra. This was recorded
in 2002/04 at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University
in Evanston, Illinois on Cedille CDR 90000 082. On the evidence of a
number of critically acclaimed recordings and consistently splendid
recitals the Pacifica 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 quartets
over a 36 year period
although he actually intended to write 24 in total; one in each separate
key. All were premièred 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 this cycle reflects
the principal events in Shostakovich’s life. The best known and
most frequently played is the Eighth Quartet in C minor
110 from 1960. The quartets contain both numerical and musical references
with the Eighth Quartet
in particular having numerous musical
citations and repeated use of the composer’s personal motif: D-S-C-H.
Both the Ninth and the Tenth were composed within a few months of each
other in 1964. It is said that these two scores denote the composer’s
shift from his central to his final period in quartet writing. No. 9
bears a dedication to the composer’s third wife, Irina Antonovna
(née Supinskaya). Comprising five connected movements it was
introduced together with No. 10 by the Beethoven Quartet in 1964 at
the Moscow Conservatory Malyi Hall. An often disturbing score, it is
heavy with anxiety and intensely watchful as if on constant alert. Resilient
and forceful, the lengthy Finale
contains a manic
outpouring of disobedience that increases in anger and weight.
The companion work, No. 10, was composed at the composer’s retreat
in the small mountain town of Dilizhan (Dilijan)
in the Armenia
mountains. Dedicated to his composer friend Mieczysław Weinberg
(aka Mieczyslaw Vainberg), the four movement score has a conventional
structure even if the third and final movements are connected. Less
adventurous than its predecessor the music here is intensely cautious
in character with a potent sense of disquiet. Once again the Finale
is the lengthiest movement and is probably
the most significant. With a vice-like grip the Pacifica generates a
severe tension that increases in weight and strength, becoming hard
to bear. Close to the conclusion the anguish diminishes but it doesn’t
Shostakovich began to write No. 11 in 1965 during a period of recuperation
after spending time in a neurological unit in January 1965. Completed
in early 1966 in Moscow the score is in seven mainly short linked movements
almost in the manner of a suite. I was interested to discover that Quartets
11-14 form a series dedicated to the members of the Beethoven String
Quartet. No. 11 bears a dedication to the memory of Shostakovich’s
close friend Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, a co-founder of the Beethoven
Quartet who had died in Moscow in 1965. The writing of the contrasting
movements although feeling fragmented often gives the impression of
child-like, naive humour on the surface with a rather astringent undercurrent
of despondency and dissonance. I was struck by the sixth movement Elegy
which feels like a sort of battle-hardened lament as if too terrified
to display true feelings.
Cast in two movements, No. 12 was completed in March 1968 and introduced
by the Beethoven Quartet at the USSR Composers’ Club, Moscow in
the summer of the same year. This score is dedicated to Dmitri Tsïganov,
the Quartet’s first violinist. This boldly adventurous score sees
Shostakovich using twelve-tone patterns within the prevailing tonality.
At nearly twenty-minutes in length the second movement Allegretto
is extremely demanding both emotionally and technically, probing the
concentration and resilience of the Pacifica who pass the test with
Polish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg’s friendship with
Shostakovich, right from his early days in Moscow in 1943, was close
and enduring. Weinberg was to write seventeen quartets including this
String Quartet No. 6
composed in 1946 which appeared for a period
in 1948 on a Soviet list of banned formalist works. Weinberg dedicated
the six movement E minor score to Georgy Sviridova favoured pupil of
Shostakovich. My highlights of the E minor Quartet
opening movement Allegro semplice
containing a colourful carnival
of emotions with the players shifting easily through the divergent light
and weighty textures. Not unlike Shostakovich in character, the central
feels soothing on the surface with a sense of disquiet
underneath. The potent final movement Andante maestoso
aggressively threatening and generates an emotionally disquieting sound-world.
One can only imagine the amount of study and preparation necessary for
this project from the Pacifica members who provide intelligent and penetrating
accounts in very good sound.
The excellence of this series makes this the finest collection available
of the complete Shostakovich string quartets.
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich