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The Soviet Experience
String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries
Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra (violin); Sibbi Bernhardsson (violin); Masumi Per Rostad (viola); Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. 2010-13, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and Auer Hall, University of Indiana, Bloomington, USA.
CEDILLE BOX 1003 [8 CDs: 480:10]

In his splendid book "Defining Russia Musically" Richard Taruskin says, in a insightful and provocative chapter on Shostakovich: "The fact is, no-one owns the meaning of this music, which has always supported (nay invited: nay compelled) multiple opportunistic and contradictory readings, and no-one can ever own it."

One of those multiple readings has now seemingly become the prevailing orthodoxy in the case of the string quartets, namely that these works contain coded statements of protest against Soviet oppression, including that from which the composer himself suffered. This orthodoxy derives less from Shostakovich himself - who had good reason to stay tight-lipped - than from two other sources: first, the music's internal evidence, such as the use of Shostakovich's personal musical motto DSCH and Jewish musical reference in the 8th quartet; and second, the personal testimony from those first interpreters who knew him, such as the members of the Beethoven and Borodin string quartets that first recorded this music.

This political and personal hinterland has bequeathed an inheritance of latent meaning to this cycle that has influenced our judgment of its interpreters. The superb and widely admired version by the Emerson Quartet had a few doubters for whom the interpretation was not 'Russian enough' (whatever that meant), or which did not slavishly follow the precedents set by those first Russian interpreters. Perhaps as even more versions accumulate on disc they will be divided into 'Soviet' and 'post-Soviet' approaches, the way lieder singers were once divided into 'interventionist' and 'non-interventionist'. That will not mean that only Russians will have access to the 'Soviet' style of the first recordings, for this cycle by the American Pacifica Quartet has many of the same attributes. They performed the cycle as part of Chicago's "The Soviet Art Experience" Festival in 2010-11 - though those here are all studio recordings. The initial two-disc issues each had a Soviet propaganda poster as cover art and the whole series is called 'The Soviet Experience'. Furthermore each issue added a quartet by another Soviet composer, so this cycle explores and exploits the hinterland of the works themselves more than any other.

This Shostakovich quartet cycle received glowing opinions everywhere as it unfolded, including here on MusicWeb International. It has now been assembled into a box, or rather a cardboard sleeve to hold the four double jewel cases of the original releases. The extensive and excellent original notes by such authorities as William Hussey, Gerard McBurney, David Fanning and Elizabeth Wilson are all retained. So too is the evocative artwork and those additional four Soviet quartets by Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Weinberg and Schnittke. Unfortunately also retained is the numbered sequence of the releases, so, as you can see from the listings above, the first volume had quartets 5-8 (presumably in order to launch with the most popular, the 8th), and the second volume quartets 1-4. Thereafter the quartets are in their numbered order on the CDs - except that its length places No. 3 on disc two of volume 2, after quartets numbers 1, 2 and 4 which fill disc one. However the contents list on the rear of the cardboard sleeve makes it quite easy to locate any specific quartet.

Since the earlier volumes have been reviewed here already, I shall focus on the last volume, with quartets number 13, 14 and 15, before offering a general assessment and some comparisons. In the first of these, number 13, timing comparison show a recent 19-20 minute consensus. Extending a little Dominy Clements's table of comparison given in his MWI review of the Razumovsky cycle, we have Pacifica 19:15, Emerson 19:08, Rubio 20:44 and Razumovsky 19:53. Go further back though and the Beethoven Quartet take 18:16 and the Borodin (first cycle) 18:38. This slightly greater sense of the flow is to the work's advantage - except for the Taneyev Quartet example, another group close to the composer, whose amazing 15:22 in the 13th quartet makes it almost a different work. This more than five minute difference in a work about 20 minutes long at most is the one extreme example in recordings of the cycle. Version timings are rarely that different - testimony to the fact that within a short time after its completion the cycle had a strong performing tradition. This is in part because Shostakovich worked closely with two quartets (the Beethovens and Borodins) who went on to record the cycle - plus his contact with the Taneyevs and the Fitzwilliam Quartet later on. Within their chosen tempo, the Pacifica are utterly convincing in number 13, which has here the relentless intensity that is the main hallmark perhaps of the 'Soviet' performing style. Certainly they yield little in authority to the Beethoven Quartet, whose members are the dedicatees of quartets 11-14.

With the 14th quartet we reach the last of those dedications, to the cellist, who is given the opening melody of an enchantingly whimsical movement. It start off at least in F sharp major, a tricky key for string players, but it doesn't sound that way here for the Pacifica. They sound as if complete mastery of the notes is a mere starting point for them, as once again they sound totally inside the music even as it visits quite different moods in swift succession. In the central slow movement, they are unflinching in the face of such despairingly poignant music.

I recall reading about No.15, then the composer's latest quartet, long before I heard it. I felt that despite the Haydn precedent in his 'Seven Last Words from the Cross' a succession of slow movements for the limited colours and dynamic range of a string quartet would be an impossible compositional challenge, even for such a genius. I remarked to a Russian colleague at a conference in Cold War Budapest that if it really is 35' long with six movements all marked adagio it could be like six years in the Gulag. He rightly scorned my frivolity as he knew people who had suffered just that. It is now regarded as the fitting climax to a great series of works, and as a requiem for the composer himself. He was well aware of the challenge to players and to listeners, but unbending in his demands and told the first performers "play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving from sheer boredom."

In fact the 15th is compelling in any version I have heard, this one not least. It is though a work where a live performance pays dividends, as the players have to raise the intensity of communication to hold the audience gripped - so that they do not 'leave from boredom'. The Emersons' live performance has a slight edge here, I suspect for that very reason. The listener dare not breathe, let alone leave, even as the flies drop all around him. Nonetheless, the Pacifica Quartet is very fine also, touchingly meditative and fabulously precise.

The final CD ends with the third quartet of Alfred Schnittke, which is a perfect choice in several ways. It is approachable in idiom, with a beguiling opening that soon develops tensions, and that is not the only parallel with Shostakovich. As the notes outline, the arch form slow-fast-slow recalls the latter's quartets 13 and 14, and there is even a distorted version of the DSCH motif. The Pacifica are as convincing in this superb work as in everything else, and at least the equal of the fine version from the Quatuor Molinari on Atma Classique, which has all four Schnittke quartets.

The earlier Shostakovich quartets show all the same qualities, precision in individual parts and tightness in ensemble, playing at once idiomatic and intense. That this is regarded now as a leading version comes as no surprise since while one might prefer another version in a particular quartet, for there is no weak performance here and the general standard is so high. The four additional quartets from other Soviet era composers are far more than makeweights, though their ultimate effect, it must be said, is to confirm Shostakovich's absolute pre-eminence. The sound is good throughout, a little close and dry but that often aids the audibility of inner or secondary parts. It is never aggressive, except when the music requires ferocious outbursts - which is not infrequently. I had no difficulty listening for quite long stretches of time - though that is a tribute to the music-making as much as to the engineering.

We are surfeited with fine cycles of these great works now, and this is one of them ... and surrently superb value for money. The Emerson Quartet still holds an honoured place also among more recent versions, and it is hard to choose between these two. Ideally a collector should have one of the earliest ones also. We can't really argue with the centrality of the Beethoven Quartet, who gave the premieres of numbers 2-14, having worked on them with the composer. That set is thus an essential adjunct to the scores as much as a recording of them. Later on, when the Beethoven no longer played quite so well, Shostakovich confessed to a preference for the Borodin Quartet, and the original members of that ensemble left recordings - though of numbers 1-13 only - on Chandos, whose notes are uncharacteristically unhelpful in delineating their exact provenance however. The full cycle is available from the Borodin's later line-up, in better sound and hardly less essential interpretations. It keeps coming and going in the catalogue, but is currently in a low-priced box from Melodiya.
As Taruskin says above, no-one can own the meaning of this music, not even its first performers. What might a truly post-Soviet reading sound like, one where one is not put in mind of the historical context, but is simply absorbed by the notes, the music as music? For that I would currently turn to the Mandelring Quartet's cycle on Audite, which has performances which somehow seem to have shed the Soviet interpretative burden, but still sound idiomatic. Perhaps the emotional temperature is correspondingly lower, but the music can and does survive that. They also have the best sound of any cycle, with an agreeable bloom around a fine SACD recording - and the performances are well worthy of such an audio examination. Note that while Audite have now boxed the five discs at a much lower price, that compilation is only of CDs in 2-channel sound.

Let me return briefly to Taruskin on Shostakovich for a final thought: "Definitive reading, especially biographical reading, locks the music in the past. Better let it remain supple, adaptable, ready to serve the future's needs. The significance of Dmitriy Dmitriyevich Shostakovich in and for the history of twentieth century music is immense, possibly unparalleled, and above all, continuing." Continuing indeed, for now we learn that the next generation of the Borodin line-up has just embarked on another recorded cycle, as has the young Carducci quartet - reviews of both to follow. They will have to be quite exceptional to match the Pacifica's achievement here.

Roy Westbrook

Previous reviews: Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3

Review index: Shostakovich ~ Miaskovsky ~ Weinberg

Volume I [57:35+60:05]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 (1952) [31:45]
String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 (1956) [25:38]
String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960) [12:13]
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [21:56]
Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
String Quartet No.13 in A minor, Op.86 (1949) [25:36]

Volume II [75.37 + 53.40]
String Quartet. No. 1 in C major, Op.49 (1938) [14.43]
String Quartet. No. 2 in A major, Op.68 (1944) [35.18]
String Quartet. No. 3 in F major, Op.73 (1946) [31.17]
String Quartet. No. 4 in D major, Op.83 (1949) [25.18]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op.92 (1941) [22.10]

Volume III [70:20 + 58:25]
String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117 (1964) [27:24]
String Quartet No. 10 in A flat major, Op. 118 (1964) [24:52]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1965/66) [17:47]
String Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133 (1968) [26:11]
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 6 in E minor, Op. 35 (1946) [32:03]

Volume IV [45:12+59:16]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op.138 (1970) [19:15]
String Quartet No. 14 in f sharp major, Op.142 (1973) [25:45]
String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op. 144 (1974) [36:10]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 3 (1983) [23:06]


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