This is the first recording of music by Shostakovich from the Belcea Quartet, so let us hope that it will be the precursor to many others, since these performances are splendid.
Both these compositions date from around the time of the Great Patriotic War, its beginning and ending. The Third Quartet is a wonderfully imaginative composition, which shows clear connections with Shostakovich's symphonic music, most particularly the Eighth and Ninth symphonies which met with considerable official disapproval.
The opening movement is an Allegretto in jaunty and uniquely ironic vein, which has its counterpart in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony. Both the playing and the wonderfully clear recorded sound enhance the extraordinary personality of the music. The simplicity of the material is deceptive, for two reasons. There is development with much complexity of thought, including a fully argued fugue, while the motivic formulae are typically subtle. Three-note figures represent 'the people' and two-note figures 'the forces of Stalin'. Beyond these allusions there is a sonata design with two principal themes. All these aspects of the music are clearly articulated by the Belcea Quartet. If the early stages of the Third Quartet are remarkable, so too is the anguished final phase, when the theme of the Adagio returns with full emotive force. But from then on the music unwinds away from drama and vehemence, concluding instead amid an atmosphere of that wistful ambiguity that is a unique aspect of this composer's style.
It is for this same reason that the Piano Quintet makes an ideal pairing to the Third Quartet. Towards the end of the 1930s, no doubt exasperated by the difficulties he was experiencing under the spotlight of political control of the arts, Shostakovich turned to the more private world of chamber music, and in particular to the string quartet. The success of his Quartet No. 1, written for the Beethoven Quartet, encouraged the composition of a Piano Quintet, which he intended as a work that he and they could perform together. Soon after completing the Sixth Symphony, he turned in earnest to composing the Quintet, and took part himself in the first performance, in November 1940. By the side of the dark, brooding atmosphere of the first movement of the symphony, the Piano Quintet strikes an enigmatic character.
Five-movement schemes undoubtedly interested Shostakovich greatly during this phase of his creative life. Both the Eighth and Ninth symphonies are constructed to this formula, and so too the Third Quartet and the Piano Quintet. In the latter the keyboard writing is notable for its clarity and simplicity. The deliberate restrictions of style serve to enhance the effectiveness of the textures, becoming one of the distinguishing features of the Quintet, and these aspects of the music are to the fore in this performance. The Quintet opens with a piano prelude, as if in homage to Bach. This simple opening leads into more complex relationships between piano and strings; and as the music develops there are be subtle relationships of phrasing to which these players respond keenly. As so often in Shostakovich, the mood is enigmatic and the performance achieves that balance between detachment and intensity that is central to Shostakovich's special personality as a composer.
One small point that needs be mentioned is that the overall playing time of the time of the disc is listed as 67:47, whereas in fact it is 69:15.
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