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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Piano Quintet in g minor, Op.57 (1940) [34:42]
String Quartet No.3 in F, Op.73 (1946) [34:31]
Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
rec. 2017, Britten Studio, Snape Reviewed as press preview
ALPHA CLASSICS 360
This recording, the Belcea Quartet’s first in Shostakovich, was made at
Snape in June 2017 at the same time as the live concert at which they
performed these two works, joined by Piotr Anderszewski for the quintet.
The programme also contained Britten’s last quartet, which the Belceas have
already given us as part of a complete set of Britten quartets –
Amazingly, that splendid 2-CD set has gone the way of all flesh in
physical format but remains available to download or stream.
The Alpha booklet reminds us of the quartet’s highly-rated earlier
recordings of Beethoven (Alpha 262 –
Brahms (Alpha 248, with Till Fellner –
and Berg, Webern and Schoenberg (Alpha 209).
If the music was recorded live – photographs of the concert show
a microphone set-up, with the players reading the score from tablets,
presumably to avoid extraneous noise – the audience must have been
remarkably quiet and there is no applause.
The Belceas bring the same idiomatic interpretations to Shostakovich as
they brought to Britten, and they are well supported by Piotr Anderszewski
in the quintet, so I have no compunction in comparing them with the best of
their rivals – so many of these, as it happens, that it’s hard to choose
one or two for comparison.
It’s not so long ago that Geoffrey Molyneux made a Hyperion recording of
the Piano Quintet from Marc-André Hamelin and the Takács Quartet a
Recording of the Month (CDA67987, with String Quartet No.2 –
review). Leslie Wright, though not wishing to forego the Borodin Quartet’s
recordings, with Richter in the quintet, also liked these performances –
Unfortunately, those Melodiya recordings are no longer available, even as
downloads. Nor is the Borodin Quartet recording with Elisabeth Leonskaja
generally to be had in any format, last seen on mid-price Warner Elatus,
though Amazon UK are offering a few left-overs.
In the end, despite the virtues of the Hyperion, I settled for my chief
comparison with Martin Roscoe and the Sorrel Quartet (CHAN10329, with
Quartets Nos. 1 and 12 –
DL Roundup February 2010). Ignore the download link to theclassicalshop – it’s now
where both 16- and 24-bit lossless are available for £9.99.
Neither the Sorrel team nor the new Belcea try to make the Piano Quintet,
which opens the Alpha recording, other than a fairly conventional work,
much less intense than we tend to think of Shostakovich’s music – after
all, it won a Stalin Prize, which didn’t go with anything avant-garde! That’s not, however, to imply that it’s a dull work and
both ensembles make it well worth hearing.
Apart from the opening Prelude, where both interpret lento to mean
4:46 – somewhere in the middle of the times on other recordings – the
Belceas are slightly slower than the Sorrels. What they lose in impetus in
the third movement scherzo, they gain in quality of articulation and
power: it is marked allegretto, not allegro, though the
composer’s own recording on Doremi is taken at quite a lick and most follow
suit, with the Takács Quartet and Roscoe and the Petersburg Quartet with
Igor Uryash, on another Hyperion CD (CDA67158), coming in somewhere
between Shostakovich and the Belceas.
The old hands of the Borodin Trio, with Jerry Horner and Mimi Zweig
(Chandos CHAN8342, with Piano Trio) agree with the Belceas, here and in the Intermezzo in
choosing tempi which sound about right from both. Both give the Intermezzo, another lento movement, more time to breathe than
the Sorrels and slightly less than the Takács. The 1983 Borodin Trio
recording still sells at full price but would surely be more attractive at
a lower price.
The finale, too, is accorded suitable weight by all these teams. It’s
another allegretto and benefits from not being taken too fast – the
Belceas again largely agreeing with the Borodin Trio and the Takács rather
than the Sorrels. Overall, the new recording seems to me to share the best
qualities of these other versions, not least because of Piotr
Anderszewski’s presence: as with all the best performances of this quintet,
it’s a miracle that the piano isn’t out of tune by the end of the finale.
How do the Belcea Quartet fare on their own in the post-war
Third Quartet? Just as well, I think, perhaps even better. Once again,
there is strong competition from complete Shostakovich cycles by the
Emerson Quartet, the Mandelring Quartet and the original Borodin Quartet
(DG, Audite and Chandos respectively) and other single-disc recordings by
the Hagen Quartet and others, but the new recording is their equal in all
I see that they impressed our Seen and Heard reviewer Julie Williams back in
2006 with this same quartet at Aldeburgh -
The Mandelring Quartet’s recording of Nos. 3, 6 and 8 is also available
separately (Audite 92.527). Here again the Belcea Quartet tend to give the
music more time than most to expand, by a considerable margin except in the
central movement, but there is never any sense that they are marking time.
Rather that they are absorbing the mood of a work composed immediately
after a war even more cataclysmic for the Soviet Union than any other
country. After a deceptively quiet opening, Shostakovich’s mood, as in the
ninth symphony, is certainly not one of exultation. Stalin, who had made
the composer a hero after the Leningrad symphony, was not pleased.
The third quartet is one work where we have a rare instance of the
composer’s reaction to his own music: after a performance by the Beethoven
Quartet he was observed to be in tears. I think the Belcea recording would
have moved him equally.
All in all, if you are primarily interested in the quartet, I’m happy to
let the coupling decide. I like the Mandelring series – see my
of Volume IV – and I think it’s still likely to have the greater appeal if only
because it’s available on SACD and No.3 comes with the much-loved Quartet
No.8. The Yggdrasil Quartet on BIS are also well worth considering in Nos.
3, 7 and 8, a 1998 recording taken at the time to be the precursor of a
series1 but not taken further, presumably because of the strong
competition (BIS-CD-913, download from
with pdf booklet). Once again, the tempi tend to be a little faster than
those of the Belcea Quartet.
Not only those maxed out on credit cards will find the budget-price Alto
set of the complete Shostakovich quartets, performed by the eponymous
Shostakovich Quartet, well worth investing in. The Russian
recordings from the early 1980s may be no match for the opposition but they
are by no means bad; the intense performances and the attractive price –
around £21 for 5 CDs – amply compensate. The Shostakovich Quartet adopt
faster tempi than the Belceas but, while they may be thought to be
authoritative, with their link to the composer2, the difference is much
greater in theory than in practice. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can
compare the Alto and Naïve recordings – and many of the others mentioned –
Like all Outhere press previews, this came in mp3 only, but this time at
least the bit-rate was the full 320kbs, still not adequate for total
confidence but good enough for me to think the CD likely to be very good.
Given just one recording of the third quartet for my Desert Island, I would
choose the complete Shostakovich Quartet series, not just because I’m
greedy but also for the authority of the performances. I’d be very happy if
someone were also to throw in this Belcea recording, especially for the
Piano Quintet coupling. It’s well worth considering.
It even says so on the cover.
Second only to the Beethoven Quartet, who premiered all the quartets.
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