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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No.14 in D minor, Death and the Maiden, D.810 (1824, arr. Mahler, 1896) [42:48]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Chamber Symphony in C minor (String Quartet No.8), Op.110a (1960, arr. Barshai ,1974) [23:40]
LSO String Ensemble/Roman Simovic
rec. live in concert, 26 April 2015, Barbican Hall, London. DSD 128fs
LSO LIVE LSO0786 SACD [66:28]

The repertoire for string orchestra is extensive, varied and rich; to my mind, the genre has often inspired composers to reach their peak. The same might be said of the string quartet, and the London Symphony Orchestra String Ensemble and Roman Simovic have chosen to follow their inaugural recording of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Bartók’s Divertimento (review) with this new disc of two giants of the string quartet repertoire arranged for full string orchestra.

One wonders what prompted Gustav Mahler to begin his transcription of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet while he was grappling with his own Third Symphony, one of the longest works in the symphonic repertoire. In the event, his Schubert project did not reach completion. While he made extensive preparatory notes, Mahler finished just one movement, the second, which he conducted in Hamburg in November 1874. Discouraged by criticism that his arrangement lacked the intimate intensity of Schubert’s original quartet, he abandoned the work. The other three movements were arranged from Mahler’s annotated score by musicologist Donald Mitchell and composer David Matthews and the work was first performed in its entirety in 1984.

For string players, the opening bars of the first movement, Allegro, give rise to both thrilling anticipation and many questions. How should one articulate and phrase that theatrical and portentous initial motif – a dotted minim followed by three staccato triplets? With fierce, vibrato-less austerity, as do the Takacs Quartet? With a sharply accented chord and each triplet wearily weighted, like the Melos? With the Artemis Quartet’s dry terseness? With restraint, even caution, and evenness, as do the Belcea? Under Simovic’s guidance the LSO strings (6,6,5,4,3) deliver a thunderous warning which is, however, warm of tone and strongly sustained through the motif.

Simovic’s attentiveness to detail, and his ability to marshal his players to remarkable concordance of spirit and execution, is notable from the first. As early as the sixth bar, the first violins’ upbeat triplet is shaped with the merest touch of rubato, creating an air of expectancy with is fulfilled in the surprisingly light-footed imitation which follows: inner voices pulse in tremulous triplets while the first violin and cello dialogue is sensitively phrased. There is a slight resonance to the recording, redolent of the concert hall, and the result is a real sense of drama, with a wider dynamic range than might be achieved by a quartet. Climaxes have grandeur, while quieter passages are imbued with warmth.

Apart from the occasional sub-division of individual parts, suggesting that he had fairly large forces at his disposal, Mahler deviates very little from the original. The LSO players undoubtedly know Schubert’s quartet well and bring considerable chamber music playing experience to this performance; they ensure that drama is not achieved at expense of lyricism. I was surprised by the sweetness and delicacy often achieved; chordal passages are forthright but not strident, and only in a few of the busier passages of running semiquavers did I wish for the transparency of just four players’ interlocking voices.

Simovic sustains the drama through the long opening movement. The chord which opens the development section, wrenching the music from the A minor dominant to an intrusive C major, is full and bright, a dynamic springboard for the exploratory episodes to follow. The recapitulation emerges excitedly and the new sweeping triplets of the upper strings are richly toned. The basses’ sustained low D, heralding the coda, is vigorously attacked but fades eerily and darkly, and the closing episode is murky and troubling.

A good tempo is adopted for the Andante which has a welcome dash of con moto: the hymn-like theme blossoms passionately, articulated with silky smoothness. At times there is a lovely withdrawal of sound, conveying a tender pathos, then the tone swells richly. Simovic must be praised for the way in which he directs his players to such expressive playing. The variations rove through a wide gamut of feeling: the violins’ elaborations are sweet of tone, with the focused bass pizzicato a reassuring bed-rock; when the cellos have the chance to soar, they phrase Schubert’s yearning arcs with beauty and sensitivity. This is again a substantial movement but there is no loss of impetus and the ear is constantly caught by the twists and turns of Schubert’s musical path. The cellos’ crescendo from pp to ff, during the violas’ thematic statement, is terrifying in intensity; but the final variation is consolingly tender.

The Scherzo is alert and tense, not so fast as to feel reckless, but swift enough to create a driving momentum; and the pulsing rhythmic motifs are quelled by the expanse of the Trio’s long-breathed melodies. The staccato of the Presto theme is crisp and taut, and when the fortes burst through, the emphatic power of the bass creates a sense of stature which grows into the majestic homophonic theme, though the LSO don’t indulge and quickly race off into tight contrapuntal arguments. The ensemble in this movement is superb, most remarkably in the breakneck Prestissimo of the final bars.

Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony is an entirely different beast. An arrangement of the composer’s Eighth String Quartet, it was the first of five orchestral transcriptions by his pupil and friend, the violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai. Barshai was the founding violist of the Moscow Conservatoire Quartet in 1945, who in 1955 founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, remaining as their conductor until 1977 when he emigrated to the West. He thus had a deep knowledge of Shostakovich’s music and significant experience as both a conductor and string quartet member.

The Eighth Quartet was composed in just three days between the 12th and 14th July 1960 while the composer was in Dresden, working on the soundtrack for the film Five Days, Five Nights – a film about the Allied fire-bombing of that city. The dedication, ‘To the victims of war and fascism’, evokes this context but a more personal meaning surfaced when the composer stated that he ‘started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.’ He told his son, Maxim, ‘it’s in my honour, dedicated to me’.

The LSO strings’ canonic announcement of the Largo’s opening ‘DSCH’ motif is concentrated and tautly shaped. The texture is sparse but melodic utterances are eloquent if troubled, and one strength of Simovic’s direction is that it is the very lyricism of the individual parts, which come together intermittently to collectively bloom or recede, which makes the music so harrowing. The incisive and unalleviated brutality of the Allegro molto which explodes from the closing bars of the first movement is as shocking as the unanimity of the playing is astonishing. After such frenzy the introduction, with no relaxation of the insistent pulse, of the lush Jewish-tinged melody from the composer’s Second Trio sounds a pointed note of sarcasm. The ‘DSCH’ motif pokes through the stabbing texture like a gnarled, jabbing finger.

We are given no relief from the relentless pounding and when the violins escape from the brash reprise of the Jewish theme it is with a piercing nasal snarl of the ‘DSCH’ motif which evolves into a diabolic waltz, full of secretive pizzicato patterns, ghastly shrieks, outlandish lurching and brief moments of lucidity. One senses the fiddle-players’ delight in the way that the musical grotesqueries are ironically contained within Classical forms.

The viola recitative which lulls the third movement, Allegretto, to a more gentle close is swept aside by savagery at the start of the Largo with ‘rat-tat-tat’ blows which accrue depth and power with each repetition. In this movement, Simovic manages to create a sense of tense, impassioned forces pitched against each other in suspicious and unforgiving adversity. The violins’ exploratory duet, above a steely drone – wonderfully firm playing from the cellos and basses – offers a brief episode of consolation, but the rise from this pedal to ever more unstable ‘centres’ ensures that the tension is sustained. Simovic is not afraid to take risks and in the final Largo the melancholic reflections seem ever more unrooted and lonely.

While a string quartet may offer a more vexing austerity, the elegiac richness of the LSO’s fuller string sound has its own eloquence and the sense of energy being gradually and unstoppably sapped from the collective voices is deeply moving, and distressing. In this reading, there is both dignity and despair.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, arrangements such as these were popular and designed to take works to a wider audience, but in more recent times the practice has sometimes been frowned upon. Should a listener have doubts, then this terrific recording should sway them.

Mahler’s Schubert arrangement may not have been well-received, but it did not stop him from completing an arrangement of Beethoven's Quartet in F minor Op.95, when he moved from Hamburg to Vienna, and performing it in its entirety. Perhaps that work (paired with Bernstein’s Op.131 arrangement?) might make a good follow-up.

Claire Seymour
 


 

 




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