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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83 [24:58]
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 [21:31]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 [16:09]
Carducci String Quartet
rec. 2014, St. Michael & All Angels Church, Summertown, Oxford.

The Carducci Quartet embarked this year on what it calls “Shostakovich15” – its project to perform all 15 of Shostakovich’s string quartets in 2015. Commemorating forty years since Shostakovich’s death, the quartet is performing ten complete cycles throughout the year, including Washington DC, London and Oxford — where in February I heard them play the 1st, 8th and 12th superbly well.

The 4th is perhaps the most easily approachable of all the 15 – the composer even later referred to it disparagingly as “mere entertainment”. As ever this is deceptive, as the insouciant opening drone soon becomes strenuous when the music very typically reaches fever pitch in the violins’ high register. Even the touchingly elegiac andantino second movement has its shadows, to which the players are perfectly responsive in their restrained and tender account. Their rhythmic poise is especially evident in the swift galop of the third movement allegretto. They also hold the long finale together most impressively, characterising the Jewish elements with great musical flair.

The 8th is now one of the most popular of all chamber works. One recent survey which asked listeners to name their favourites in that genre placed the work eighth (out of fifty), and all those above it were written in the 19th century (except Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet). It is very direct and dramatic music with a cumulatively powerful sequence of movements in just over twenty minutes. The Carducci Quartet are the masters of all this, perhaps as much as anyone on disc for some time. They surpass the recent Borodin account on Decca, in part by returning to the former Borodin line-up’s intense manner and swift tempi, their 21:31 close to the second Borodin version’s 21:50, rather than the new Borodin’s 24:24. In a short work these things can matter.

The 11th quartet is one of the shortest in the cycle and has often seemed among the most elusive – or so I thought until I heard this compelling version, which really makes musical and emotional sense of the succession of very short movements, which seem more than the sum of their parts, as great music must. Collectively and individually the Carduccis are superb here, as they are throughout the disc. The engineering is top class also, giving the instruments an almost tactile presence but without becoming tiring to listen to.

There is plenty of high quality competition in these works. The excellent Jerusalem Quartet on a well-recorded bargain two-CD set from Harmonia Mundi includes the same three as the Carducci as well as numbers 1, 6 and 9 – all for about the same price. That too is very recommendable indeed and not only for reasons of economy, but the fine performances of 4, 8, and 11 are not obviously superior to those on this Signum disc. Such is the high standard to be heard in this repertoire from many groups currently that we are spoiled for choice.

Signum does not say whether this recording is the start of a set – they might be waiting to see if it sells – but on this evidence a full cycle from the Carduccis would be very welcome.

Roy Westbrook