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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Fragments - Volume 1 String Quartet No.1 in C major Op.49 (1938) [14:11]
String Quartet No.2 in A major Op.68 (1944) [36:15]
String Quartet No.4 in D major Op.83 (1949) [24:20]
String Quartet No.3 in F major Op.73 (1946) [31:55] Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 (1940) [32:42]
Prelude and Fugue in C minor Op.87 No.20 (1950-51) [9:02]
String Quartet No.5 in B flat major Op.92 (1952) [31:18]
String Quartet No.6 in G major Op.101 (1956) [23:52]
String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor Op.108 (1960) [12.50]
Prelude and Fugue in D-flat major Op.87 No.15 (1950-51, arr. quartet) [5:24]
Alexander Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo (violin 1), Frederick Lifsitz (violin 2), Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello))
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2005/6. FOGHORN CLASSICS CD1988 [3 CDs: 74:58 + 74:01 + 73:42]
Once upon a time I was rather harsh with the Foghorn Classics label, chastising them for adding little clips of recorded foghorns at the end of each disc with these recordings of Shostakovich’s String Quartets. My review back in 2012 was of course by no means all about foghorns, but down the years this has been a theme revisited more than once in our occasional communications, and this re-release now appears without their presence at the end of each disc. Am I happy about this? Yes of course, though there is also a part of me that feels like The Grinch who stomped on everyone’s fun.
The new set looks almost identical to the original, though there are a few useful little design differences on the CDs themselves so you’ll easily be able to tell which are the new ones if you happen to have both sets. Foghorns aside, the re-release is also remastered, so the question of sound quality now arises. I’m not really a big fan of comparing remastered recordings to spot subtle improvements, and at least one colleague to whom I mentioned this re-release asked “why?” The original recordings were very good, but times and technology move on apace. If you’re going to re-release a title, why not indeed see if there are ways of improving your product. As CD 2 has the Piano Quintet this was my reference, but from the start of the Third Quartet it was immediately clear that the recording has been polished up quite nicely. The definition of the instruments in the stereo space is a little more finely etched, and as a result there seems to be more air around the players.
These days I’ve ditched my conventional domestic Hi-Fi for a more flexible set-up with active studio monitors, listening through a neat little mixing desk that also provides a direct feed between player and headphones. This has cut out quite a bit of electronic cheese and makes this kind of A/B comparing quite revealing. With the Piano Quintet there has been a certain amount of straightening out of the piano sound which, going back to the original, sounds just a bit over-full in the mid-range. With a more transparent piano sound, moments such as the big tutti at around 3:00 in the first movement also allows the strings more clarity.
All of these effects are interesting, but you will have to decide for yourself if such sonic advantages are worth the investment if you already own the set in its original guise. Talking of investments, this will have taken a substantial financial outlay for the Alexander Quartet. The remastered second volume of this set will be appearing first as an improved high-resolution download, and will only appear as a physical release if sales of the first prove to make this justifiable. I do hope this happens, as the new life breathed into these recordings has certainly allowed me to rediscover them in a very positive way.
As far as the competition goes, there have been one or two new Shostakovich string quartet sets in the last five years, in particular the Brodsky Quartet’s live recording on the Chandos label (review). This is a more intense and spontaneous-sounding experience in general, but with its own quirks which can prove a bit wearing on repeated hearings. With regard to re-releases, Quatour Danel’s 2005 set on Fuga Libera label has been revived on the Alpha label (review) and has come out sounding as fresh as ever. I’d be hard pressed to pick a firm favourite, but would always recommend the Alexander Quartet for the fine character in their sound and their depth of expression, as well as the imaginative extras which make their set stand out from those that offer only the quartets.