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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83 (1949) [24:58]
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [21:33]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966) [16:09]
Carducci String Quartet
rec. 2014, St. Michael & All Angels Church, Sommerton, Oxford.

I last came across the Carducci Quartet in 2010 with their Naxos recording of Philip Glass's first four string quartets (review). This is still a leading choice for that repertoire, so it is good news that they are due to complete that particular cycle on a release due in September 2015. One of their competitors in Glass in 2008 was the Paul Smith Quartet, on Signum Classics (review), which brings sort of ironic circularity to this Shostakovich recording.

Beautifully recorded, this is an attractive set of quartets by Shostakovich. The Fourth Quartet is infused with Jewish character and was one of several works he had to keep hidden from the increasingly anti-semitic Stalinist regime. The Carducci Quartet's sound is for a large part warm and affectionate in this work, delivering plenty of passion and power in the opening and the Finale but retaining in general a kind of respectful aura for the melancholy atmosphere and despairing dances used by Shostakovich in empathy for the suffering of his fellow artists. There are some intensely magical moments in this performance, in particular in the disarmingly simple directness of the Andantino second movement, and that unison melody 40 seconds into the following Allegretto.

The Eighth Quartet is Shostakovich's best known by a fair margin, and while the heartfelt and deeply personal emotions in the piece are ardently expressed by this quartet, they also perform with the tenderness and restraint you would seek as a kind of one-to-one conversation with the composer. The opening Largo is less a statement of bleakness and grief, rather a uniquely special moment of consolation and nostalgic recollection. The violence of the following Allegro molto is fierce indeed, but the drive is one of Beethovenian inner turmoil rather than an outward assault on the senses. This feel of psychological wrangling rather than of public declamation is held into the central Allegretto, the rhythmic quality of the strings potent but not over-egged. Maximum wallop is reserved for those stabbing chords in the penultimate Largo, and the raw exposed nerves of the work are exposed in full, with passages of lingering heartbreak to follow. This sets us up for the last Largo, in which the conversation of the opening is recalled, but this time we are in a monologue with the cold finality of a stone monument and the desolation left when all reply has been forever lost.

The Eleventh Quartet is another work with an atmosphere of loneliness and a "preoccupation with mortality and death". This work has plenty of that exposed, skeletal bareness that characterises Shostakovich's late work, and the Carducci Quartet revels in the disparate solo fragments thrown around in the Scherzo second movement and elsewhere. The extremes of range and other technical demands of this quartet are taken with fluency in this recording, with nuances of colour and closely observed musical details all uniting to communicate a remarkable experience and ultimately going a long way toward effacing the quartet as a performing unit - Shostakovich's message uninhibited by mundane considerations of intonation and ensemble.

Comparison is inevitable, but the introduction of alternatives at this stage takes nothing away from the excellence of this recording. I almost inevitably return to the Fitzwilliam Quartet's complete Decca cycle as a reference for these works, and of course you can hear plenty of differences. They are more sustained and texturally more 'symphonic' in many places in the Fourth Quartet, the emotional weight in the Eighth Quartet is leant on more heavily from the outset, the contrasts more explosive and edgy, and despite its overt simplicity the Eleventh Quartet is at times gritty to the point of ugliness. That Recitative as a point of comparison to a large extent sums up my position on this Carducci Quartet recording. One might argue that they might have brought more out of the music of they had been more 'risky', but this would seem to me a side-effect of their refinement and technical brilliance. The Carducci Quartet does push this music to extremes, but they are so good it always sounds precise and sophisticated. You can at times chose to dare to push this music beyond this boundary, but you can also chose to express Shostakovich through the letter and spirit of his scores without exposing the disease which can be found when you plunge its depths to the very heart. This is not a criticism, and I'd bet the Carducci Quartet is prepared to see blood on the carpet when it comes to certain live performances.

From the evidence of this disc's texts there is apparently no suggestion that this is likely to turn into a complete cycle, though Roy Westbrook's review refers to this quartet's "Shostakovich15" performing project so they have these works under their fingers. If that were the case I'd buy it like a shot. This kind of perfection is in some ways miraculous and I am filled with admiration for this recording, recommending it wholeheartedly. If however you want that smoky, dangerous cold-war feel of angst and grimness then you will also want views such as that of the Fitzwilliam's.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Roy Westbrook


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