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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Complete String Quartets
Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland (1st violin),
Kian Belton (2nd violin),
Paul Cassidy (viola),
Jacqueline Thomas (cello))
rec. live, 4-6 March 2016, Muziekgebouw Amsterdam CHANDOS CHAN10917(6) [6 CDs: 397:27]
This is not the first time the Brodsky Quartet has recorded a complete set of Shostakovich’s string quartets, and Paul Shoemaker’s review of the 2003 re-release is an interesting read on this subject in general. I remember this Teldec set as being very fine, but also something of an also-ran in comparison to the red-blooded character of what remains my favourite set of these works, that with the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Decca. This and the more recent Alexander String Quartet recording on Foghorn Classics (review) are my main references when it comes to full sets these days, though there are now numerous excellent complete recordings around.
I’m hopeless for getting out to concerts and am ashamed to admit I didn’t make the trek from The Hague to Amsterdam to hear any of these performances. I do know the Muziekgebouw well however both from on stage and as an audience member, and these recordings are a vivid recreation of that lively space. The Brodsky Quartet certainly responds positively to this environment, and the crackle of freshness and invention leaps out at you from beginning to end. Photos show the players standing up while performing, apart from the cellist of course. This seems an eminently sensible idea, and I’m sure it adds to the energy of the performances. Early Music ensembles do this more often even in quite substantial chamber-orchestral settings, and most musicians will tell you that they work better standing rather than sitting.
In general terms this Chandos recording has everything going for it, with superb definition in the string sound; plenty of detail and close texture but exciting rather than overdone. Comparing this to the now vintage Decca sound for the Fitzwilliam Quartet shows where, if they might win in terms of atmosphere, this Brodsky set can challenge and overcome in most other respects. The cello sound in particular sounds quite a bit more rounded, mellow and deep in the older recording by comparison, though this is no doubt in the nature of the playing as much as it is in the recording. The Amsterdam recording has less bass weight but more transparency. What I always admired about the Fitzwilliam set is the lifeordeath grip the quartet has on the music from beginning to end. Even with all of their excellent quartet qualities there is a little more individualism from the Brodsky players, who portray a gathering of empathetic citizens rather more than they do a monotheistic unit. There are advantages to be had from both angles and I am by no means pointing out an element of disunity in the Brodskys – far from it, but each player’s character has its defining qualities, in particular the strikingly brilliant first violin of Daniel Rowland.
Rather than go through the entire cycle I’d rather look at some details that point towards the quality of the whole. We can kid ourselves all we want, but I’m willing to bet many people will dive straight towards the remarkable Eighth Quartet as a favourite. The Brodskys slow down a bit after the first bars in the opening Largo and remain somewhat under the tempo marking, explaining a timing of 5:56 over the Fitzwilliam’s 4:59. This is a ruminative rather than scorchingly emotive opening, but the subsequent Allegro molto is hot enough, that folk-like tune and those high notes taken with tensile agility and energetic force by Daniel Rowland. The Allegretto is nailbitingly serious, any sense of frothy wit stripped away in the way the players flay the notes of any excess fat, the mysterious softer passages later like a windswept glacier. The icy chill is maintained in the following Largo, the sotto voce playing at around 2:45 creating a magical but deeply grief-laden effect. That more contemplative opening achieves its clarity of meaning with the final Largo, the quartet having kept its powder just dry enough to leave room for this final movement to have its full and devastatingly understated tragic effect. The final page with the strings con sordino emerges as if from under water: a lamenting male voice choir within a lost Soviet submarine.
Returning to the Fitzwilliam Quartet in this work is like going back to comforting familiarity, but they too are very hard-hitting where it counts. My point about stand-out playing is made in the Allegro molto in which first violin Christopher Rowland by no means shines beyond proportion in those high notes, the strength in the performance being very much a collective affair at all times. That Allegretto is delivered with plenty of contrast but a lighter touch in general – more dance-like but still deeply ironic: a dance of skeletons in a sinister and decaying ballroom. I still like the added urgency the Fitzwilliam’s give to those pesante accented motifs in the penultimate Largo – both quartets smuggling some rhythmic freedoms here and there. The final Largo is again more compact, 3:44 to the Brodsky’s 5:07, the Fitzwilliams singing out more defiantly before that final, regretful submergence.
The skeletal nature and symphonic proportions of the final Fifteenth Quartet exposes any quartet’s ability to sustain form and texture for what can seem like massively extended periods of time. Looking at timings again shows the Brodsky Quartet indulging in slower pace, with the first movement coming in at 14:04 to the Fitzwilliam’s 11:45, the Russian character of the music coming through more clearly through the actually quite dynamic Adagio pace of crotchet = 80. Checked against the metronome the Brodskys start out with good intentions but sink back to about 66 before long. I had a listen to the Alexander Quartet at this point by way of a reminder and still very much admire their rich sonorities and soulful expression even in what by comparison with the Chandos recording now sounds a bit close and studio-bound. There are always many ways to approach good music, and all of these recordings are valid and valuable in their own way. The Brodsky Quartet has the freshness of live performance, while the Fitzwilliam Quartet has, especially in this final quartet, that edge of discovery in a work that was still brand new, and being interpreted only a short time after the composer’s death.
Pick any of these quartets at random and you can sense the musicians of the Brodsky Quartet revelling in Shostakovich’s notes on the page, but seeking beyond in ways that allow for a certain amount of personal expression, or possibly ‘in the moment’ explorations of atmosphere and mood that can only come from an ensemble to which these works have become second nature. There are indeed some moments which can feel a little indulgent, where notes are allowed to slide or where rubato takes its own little course. These are all in the service of a remarkable performance project in which spontaneity has to be allowable. There are a couple of movements in which the strain seems to show – perhaps for instance the climactic stages of the opening Allegro ma non troppo movement in the Fifth Quartet sound a bit desperate, but 1952 was still a desperate time.
Filled with gorgeous moments, fearsome passion and remarkable quartet colour, this is certainly a valuable Shostakovich cycle and one which can be firmly recommended. Would it be my definitive library choice? Perhaps not, but it does give the alternatives a run for their money and would do me fine if it were the last one in the shop. The Fitzwilliam Quartet still maintains its hold on my affections, and not just because it has all of the time-worn qualities of a beloved old coat. Their sonic balance, feel for inner voices and architectural shaping of each movement still hard to beat, and while the Brodsky Quartet sound is pretty much state-of-the-art there is that more soloistic 1st violin presence and the occasional feel of structural bagginess with those slower tempi to contend with. This is however a set that can blast hefty gusts of new life into your collection, and live Shostakovich cycles by non-seated players have to be few and far between.
CD 1 [51:05]
Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op. 49 (1938) [15:08]
Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68 (1944) [35:42]
CD 2 [59:55]
Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73 (1946) [32:35]
Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83 (1949) [27:05]
CD 3 [72:23]
Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 (1952) [32:07]
Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 (1956) [25:32]
Quartet No. 7 in F sharp Minor, Op. 108 (1960) [14:13]
CD 4 [76:25]
Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [24:15]
Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117 (1964) [26:17]
Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 118 (1964) [25:24]
CD 5 [67:05]
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966) [17:56]
Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133 (1968) [26:17]
Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138 (1970) [22:24]
CD 6 [70:34]
Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major, Op. 142 (1973) [28:56]
Quartet No. 15 in E flat Minor, Op. 144 (1974) [41:22]