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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.2 in A, Op 68 [35:11]
Piano Quintet in g minor, Op.57 [35:15]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Takács Quartet
rec. Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK, 2014.  DDD
HYPERION CDA67987 [70:26]

Reviewed as lossless download from (available on CD and in mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless downloads, with pdf booklet)
Right from the very first bar I felt that these were going to be fine performances of these two Shostakovich works. The first movement of Quartet No.2 is played with vigour and forward thrust. Although the recording is rich and warm, with excellent balance, the textural complexity is delivered with clarity and transparency by the musicians and recording engineers. The movement is a well-rounded structure with the classical proportions of sonata form; the Takács set a good tempo and show command of the style.

The second movement is slow and passionate, and this is particularly well expressed in the first violin’s lamenting recitatives as we are taken to visit the darker side of this composer’s psyche. As the emotional intensity increases, the tension of the performance is palpable. As we move through the Romance, the players get right to the heart of this music. Eventually we return to the stillness of the opening before moving into a rather moody but very fast waltz which, in spite of its underlying melancholy, gives us some relief from the intensity of the second movement. Nevertheless a casual listener would not guess that the composer had described this as a waltz. It develops into an increasingly vigorous and wild scherzo and I am constantly struck by the imagination of the musical interpretation and brilliance of the ensemble work shown here by the Takács players.

The ensuing Theme and Variations begins solemnly enough, but as we proceed through the variations the players show a deep understanding of the widely varying moods and performing techniques involved.

The opening Prelude of the Piano Quintet is given a solid start by Mark-André Hamelin, but he finds more expressive possibilities here than many players. The string quartet players soon join him and together they build towards a fine and impassioned climax. As so often in Shostakovich the mood suddenly changes. The ensuing section is seemingly light-hearted but also wistful, and it soon develops into something more dramatic. Characteristically, Shostakovich uses extreme registers of the piano, often in octaves, and Hamelin knows when to dominate and when to maintain a lower profile in the texture.

The second movement is by far the most substantial. It is marked Fugue: adagio and begins gently with more than a touch of melancholy. We are given no advanced intimation of the drama and passion to come. Eventually the pianist, who is the last player to join the fugal exposition, sets a more ominous tone in the piano’s deepest register. The balance is well judged by both the players and the recording engineers, and the players are well able to manage effectively the huge climaxes later on.

The fiery scherzo provides a foil to the tragic undertones of the slow movement. It is gruffly Beethovenian but with strange melodic shapes and with the occasional 4-time bar thrown in to dislodge the pulse. This short but virtuosic and colourful movement is tossed off by the players with great panache and style. It sounds as though the musicians are having great fun.

After a beautifully performed fourth movement, a little intermezzo, we arrive at the last movement, a piece which always seems a little strange to me. Although I have performed the piano part myself many times, I still cannot say that I have got to the bottom of what the composer really means.  But perhaps this remains true of so much of Shostakovich’s music.  This final Allegretto is light in spirit, at least at first, and it dances along happily in the major key. It doesn’t seem quite to belong to this work, although soon there are reminisces of sad things past and some crazily angular themes.  The exciting moments are well projected by the excellent players and the whole piece ends quietly in a good mood. Or maybe it is a mood of quiet resignation.

This is a fine performance, with the players capturing the multi-faceted and ambiguous moods of this ever-popular quintet. Both works are superbly recorded by Hyperion and David Fanning’s programme notes are informative as well as superbly and imaginatively written.

Geoffrey Molyneux

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