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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets 1-15
Piano Quintet
String Quartet Movement; Allegretto (unfinished)
Two Pieces for String Quartet (Elegy & Polka), Op. 36a
Preludes from Podrugi (The Girlfriends), Op. 41a
Borodin Quartet, Alexei Volodin (piano)
rec. 2014-2018, Concert Hall of the Victor Popov Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow, Russia
DECCA 483 4159 [7 CDs: 456 mins]

This new recording by the Borodin Quartet of the cycle with which they are most closely associated was launched back in 2015. That first release was issued to mark the group’s seventieth anniversary, and contained quartets 1, 8, and 14. This new cycle has progressed with further recordings made in Moscow over three years of all fifteen quartets, plus the Piano Quintet and some other related pieces. It thus succeeds the first versions of numbers 1 to 13 by the original group members (c.1960, reissued on Chandos in 2003), and its successor of all fifteen (c.1980, recorded by Melodiya, and most familiar in EMI’s 1987 compilation). In addition, there have been UK recordings for Virgin Classics of numbers 2,3,7,8, and 12 in 1990 and Berlin recordings of 1, 15, and the Piano Quintet made for Teldec in 1995.

The original Borodin Quartet members came together seventy years ago in 1945, and were first called the “Moscow Philharmonic Quartet”. Early members included Rostropovich (briefly) and Rudolf Barshai. The group changed its name to the Borodin Quartet in 1955 and is one of the few existing chamber groups with such titular continuity and longevity. There have been successive changes in the group’s personnel, of course, but overlaps have enabled the legacy to be passed on. Of the current members of the Quartet featured on this new cycle, Ruben Aharonian and Igor Naidin joined in 1996, Vladimir Balshin in 2007, and Sergei Lomovsky in 2011. None of them features in those near-legendary two recordings of the cycle, which had in common the viola player Dmitri Shebalin and the cellist Valentin Berlinsky — who was the teacher of the current cellist. “As each newcomer joins”, the Quartet’s website states, “he hears the existing members playing in a very recognisable style, so he is automatically soaking up the tradition…It’s as natural a process as could exist, learning while performing with your elder colleagues.” I include all this here as there is nothing at all on it in the booklet for this issue.

So we should expect much similarity of general approach and detail despite the changing personnel, and that broadly is what we get. Let’s start with what is measurable – the duration of the performance (the suggested timing for each quartet is marked in each of the Sikorski pocket scores). The table below gives the timings for six different cycles on record. The Beethoven Quartet, who gave almost all the premieres and worked with the composer, then the three Borodin Quartet cycles, all or some of whose members in the first two cycles benefitted from the same contact with Shostakovich, but whose third line-up gained those insights only indirectly. Then come two current much admired modern releases, one from Europe, the Mandelring Quartet, and one from America, the Pacifica Quartet. Those are the two, non-Russian, versions from this century which are my current benchmarks. There could be many others, and the Fitzwilliam (who had contact with the composer over the later works in the cycle) and the Emerson Quartets in particular have held a high place in the catalogue since they appeared.

  Beethoven Quartet Borodin 1 (1960s) Borodin 2 (1980s) Borodin 3 (2018) Mandelring (2006-9) Pacifica (2011-13)
1 14:12 13:49 14:15 14:15 14:40 14:41
2 32:25 36:08 38:01 35:06 33:43 35:17
3 29:51 35:28 33:33 33:49 29:26 31:15
4 21:31 25:12 25:07 25:57 24:21 25:17
5 29:56 29:34 31:37 31:23 30:43 31:45
6 26:50 24:50 24:14 25:52 21:28 25:38
7 11:40 11:52 12:29 13:10 11:55 12:13
8 19:47 20:42 21:50 24:21 18:56 21:56
9 23:46 28:37 26:51 27:57 25:08 27:24
10 21:48 23:50 24:11 25:39 23:40 24:52
11 15:13 16:07 18:01 18:48 16:12 17:47
12 26:14 28:46 27:25 27:19 25:40 26:11
13 18:16 18:38 19:56 21:27 18:50 19:15
14 25:01 -- 28:15 29:51 26:01 25:45
15 37:24 -- 36:04 37:11 32:35 36:10

But what can we learn from this data? Perhaps the first thing to say is that overall duration can disguise many differences between and within movements, but does tell us something. Most important might just be that there are established tempi in this music, to a degree that few very large variations exist. A similar survey of symphonic cycles might show more variation (not least as the symphonies are often much longer, with more scope for variation). But within that it can be said that the tempo norms have slowed a bit since the Beethoven Quartet’s day. They have the shortest duration in ten of the fifteen, and are a close second shortest in two others. However, they also take the longest time of any in No.15, with its sequence of six adagios. The Beethoven Quartet, now with only two of the original members, gave the 1975 Moscow premiere eight months before the composer’s death.

But the set under consideration, or Borodin 3, shows the same trend of taking a bit more time, which they do even compared to their original line-up. Thus Borodin 3 are slower than Borodin 1 in nine of the first thirteen quartets (which was all that existed when that first cycle was made), and slower than Borodin 2 in numbers 14 and 15. Many of these differences are small of course, but over such a big cycle perhaps the generalisation is sound, especially when we add some important qualitative data, from recollections by quartet members of working with the composer. Here the essential source is Elizabeth Wilson (who writes the booklet notes for this issue) and whose brilliant book “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” (Faber, 2nd Ed, 2006) is based on such reminiscences. The cellist in Borodin 1 and 2 was Valentin Berlinsky, whose most relevant observations in Wilson’s book, especially concerning tempi, include the following:

“Sometimes, he wrote in the metronome markings after the first performance by the Beethoven Quartet. Its leader, Dmitiri Tsyganov, was by nature a fast player, and thus influenced Shostakovich’s tempo markings. We never played in the same tempi that the Beethoven Quartet took.”

“In general his marking of the tempo often contradicted what he really wanted. We would say “But Dmitri Dmitriyevich, your metronome mark is such and such.” He replied “Well you see, my metronome at home is out of order, so pay no attention to what I wrote”.
(Yet)…Shostakovich hardly ever changed anything in his works. He was very meticulous in his fair copy.”

“Shostakovich was a very anxious performer. Because of that all our tempi tended to be too fast…He used to say “Let’s play it fast, otherwise the audience will get bored”. He particularly rushed the slow movements. For instance, in the 3rd Quartet, he hurried us on in the great funeral march of the fourth movement. “No, no” he would say “while you’re stretching out that first C sharp, the audience will fall asleep.” “

“Many years later…we presented Shostakovich with (our) records. …He wrote us a very detailed letter, which didn’t contain a single reference to the tempi. Most of his complaints were in regard to the dynamics (usually he asked for more subtle nuances within the dynamic range), and to some wrong notes. These mostly turned out to be misprints in the score.”

So here is some explanation of the trend of taking more time over these works, especially now the composer is no longer here to say “speed up, the listeners will get bored”.

Turning to this cycle purely on its own terms, it must be said at once that it has all the authority that the group’s musical genealogy would suggest, since we have four musicians who were recruited into the quartet most associated with this music. And what musicians they are. These pieces offer plenty of solo opportunities for each member, not just the leader, and in each case you can hear what fine individual string players these are. More important still, they blend superbly, sounding always as if they are listening to each other. Thus in the angry fugal development of the finale of the briefest quartet, No.7, they produce fast, brilliant and precise playing that rivals the ever-swift Beethoven Quartet.

The Shostakovich quartets are all mature works, the first of them being written a couple of years after the Fifth Symphony. There is always a tendency with great cycles to assume that somehow as the artist gets older the pieces get “better”. But numbers 2 and 3 are great works which just happen to be quite different from Nos. 12 and 13, because the style develops, especially becoming more austere, in his later years.

Even so, there is an experimental feeling to No.1 – the composer said he “wrote the first page as a kind of exercise in quartet form not thinking to complete it.” Thank goodness he did complete it, and fourteen more right up to the year before he died. Reviewing that 2015 issue of Quartet No.1 I had felt that the rich string sound, solid technique and feeling for the idiom evident in the opening movement was reminiscent of earlier incarnations of this group. As the seemingly simple C major music develops more ambiguity, the Borodin’s nuanced playing casts shadows upon the serene surface.

No.2 is a much more substantial work, the longest in this recorded cycle until the 37-minute No.15.  “Duration: 32 minutes” says the score of No.2, while here the piece runs for 35 minutes, (and 36 minutes in the 1960’s Borodin account). The superb leader, Ruben Aharonian, has plenty to do in the first movement and indeed throughout, but it never feels like a quasi-concertante role, since this is real quartet writing with plenty of opportunities for the other players and an integrated four-part texture, with the exception of the first-violin dominated “Recitative and Romance” of the second movement. That title is rather – possibly deliberately – misleading, for it sounds like a lament, and Elizabeth Wilson writes of its “religious character”, which the first violin endorses in his expressive playing (the marking at the outset is molto espressivo.) The quirky offbeat waltz, a type hardly unknown in Russian music, is led superbly by the cello, and the Borodins really catch its spectral quality. The variation form finale has a very Russian-sounding theme, and each variation is well characterised, but without impeding the continuity of the movement.

No.3 is also a big work, cast in five movements, and the essence of each one is fully captured here. The easy-going opening Allegretto has a certain insouciance but as complexities and dissonances gather around it, the group responds with burgeoning intensity – essential in this composer’s music. No.4 begins especially attractively, with its folk-like theme over a drone bass, but once again, and soon, clouds gather and storms brew, and the players, while never stretched technically, give us the sense of strain the music implies. The sweetly-phrased Andantino is an hymn-like oasis in this context, at least until some shadows fall once again. No.5 also has an early crisis forming in its exposition and the Borodins resist any unmarked tempo changes, managing such rapid mood shifts within the main tempo. Then as with No. 4, there is a touching slow movement, but a bleak one until the beautiful switch to the second section, which the players achieve with fine tone, taste, and balance. No.6’s third movement Lento is a passacaglia, and unfolds with dignified inevitability, the opening lower string passages sounding rich, warm and affecting first from Vladimir Balshin’s solo cello, then together with Igor Naidin’s viola.

The group relishes the various references to Jewish folk music in the quartets, notably in the klezmer derived theme in the finale of No.4, and famously in the quotation from the Piano Trio No.2 found in the eighth quartet, best known of the cycle. As I noted on its first issue, No. 8 receives a very good performance. However, some doubts did creep in about the intensity level, normally so high with the Borodin Quartet in this repertoire, and I put this down to a slightly broader tempo than usual, which seemed to lower the emotional temperature slightly. But this troubled me much less second time around.

No.9 is a big five movement work that also plays continuously – one of the “great symphonic quartets” says Judith Kuhn (reference below). It opens with a wavy line rocking accompaniment reminiscent of that for Pimen, the monk-chronicler in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. There are other “Pimenovsky” accompaniments in the later quartets which some Soviet musicologists (Kuhn again writes) heard as showing that Shostakovich likewise “sought to be a chronicler of his time”. It is, though, as much a motif as an accompaniment, and the players toss it between their instruments with great conviction in that first movement. The second movement Adagio is searchingly played, though the Beckmesser in me wondered at some details, such as whether the swift diminuendo from ff to pp 2 bars before fig. 23 should register more. The central scherzo with its bounding anapaests (a fingerprint long before the William Tell quotation in the Fifteenth Symphony) is brilliantly athletic, and the big finale is compelling right up to its – rare in the cycle – emphatic loud ending.

No.10’s first movement shows one essential quality of the Borodins’ playing of this music, namely – and I don’t know how else to put this – the ability somehow to elucidate the elusive. The music seems emotionally neutral, though with frequent shifts of mood, and mostly quiet and restrained. This performance makes all that seem quite natural, and in the ensuing scherzo there is a compensating bite in response to the Allegretto furioso marking. The third movement Adagio (another passacaglia) is poignant, and the folk elements of the finale dance along splendidly, until the music rather evaporates into its ‘morendo’ close.

Quartet No. 11, too, is given a superbly satisfying performance. According to the score, its seven short movements play continuously for about sixteen minutes, but they total nearer nineteen minutes here, which nonetheless does not feel too slow, or at any point indulgent. The wonderful Quartet No.12 is the one where Shostakovich experiments with his own (basically tonal) use of the twelve-note row, and the Borodins do launch it with an exploratory feeling (it, too, has one of those “Pimenovsky” oscillating wavy lines). The second movement has some extraordinary sounds, not least the fierce trills and then the rushing semiquaver sextuplet passages (also twelve-note rows, it seems), sul ponticello the second time round. These quartets have an amazing range of textures, and these features of No. 12 are expertly played by the Borodins - as is the long pizzicato passage for first violin (fig. 51 et seq.) where the composer especially admired the playing of Dmitri Tysganov, leader of the Beethoven quartet (to whom the Twelfth is dedicated). He might have admired Ruben Aharonian’s playing of this just as much perhaps.

No.13 is the only one in a single movement -as distinct from several movements played without a break. It is usually about eighteen minutes long, but here we have one of the proportionally longer of the Borodin performances relative to others listed above. It is a bleak work, mostly slow, and the Borodins stare it in the face for an unflinching 21 minutes. It is dedicated to the violist of the Beethoven Quartet, and the viola has plenty to do, including strike his precious instrument’s body with the wood of his bow. (If they had viola jokes in Russia this was have been the cruellest of them all – you get the bleakest work and you have to mistreat your viola.) The violist here and indeed all his colleagues spare us little in this uncompromising account, right through to the crescendo up to the nightmare scream marked sffff that ends the piece.

Quartet No. 14 was the best performance on the 2015 trailer disc. There is a similar broadening of tempo in all three movements compared to the second Borodin cycle (29:54 versus 28:15) but this does not rob the music of the sense of growth needed to sustain the three longish movements. The central Adagio is especially poignant here, searching and affecting, though not so redolent of the sick room of a death-haunted artist as with No.15. That last quartet has only ever been seen as valedictory, since Shostakovich had been so ill and it consists of six movements all of them marked Adagio or Adagio Molto (for the fifth movement funeral march). Although that sounds monotonous, there are different kinds of motion, texture and harmonic tension within that constraint, and the Borodins – like the Beethoven Quartet themselves – are remorseless in their studied stillness, those being the only two groups (in the table above) to take over 37 minutes and dare quite such slow tempi. In No.15 Shostakovich was well aware of the challenge to players and to listeners, but unbending in his demands and told the first performers "play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving from sheer boredom." No chance of boredom here. There are passages where you hold your breath with the tension or even with the beauty of this music, like the opening Elegy, a fugue of timeless beauty. Those ppp to sffff crescendi on single notes passed between the instruments that open the second movement Serenade are not as fierce as some accounts but still chilling enough, and the funeral march is implacable in its tread. The last quartet ends, like numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 14, with the marking morendo (dying away…).

Listening to all these quartets again over a couple of weeks has been an absorbing, haunting, sometimes harrowing, experience, but also often an exciting and moving one - and there are moods, admittedly rare, when almost no other music will do. These latest recordings from the Borodin Quartet have been very fine companions, and there are no failures, no weak performances, and some superb ones, especially among the later quartets. The set can easily be highly recommended as a persuasive and comprehensive guide worthy to join previous line-ups of this illustrious group - and I know no set that offers finer string playing.

My main concern, which grew on me as listened through the cycle, was the sound, or more precisely the dynamic range it offers. There is at least one quartet, the Third, which contains both a ppp marking and an fff marking, and another, the Eighth, which has both many a pp and many an fff. The 12th even has an ffff marking for a single note of a cello solo (fig. 54). In fact, these marks litter all the scores, with numerous markings of crescendo and diminuendo, and we have seen above Valentin Berlinsky recalling the composer paying particular attention to dynamics. Now Borodin 3 do mostly observe them, but it is often within a fairly narrow dynamic range so that the score provides the evidence that the ear then listens out for. There is only so much that can be done of course by four stringed instruments in dynamic terms, and players can perhaps see these marks as signs of the extreme moods implied rather than just actual dynamic level. Whatever the group decides to play, though, it is for the recording team to capture that faithfully. Suffice it to say that if you turn to the splendid SACD recordings of the Mandelring Quartet, there are no such problems - but I would not wish to overemphasise this in the context of a set of such fine performances in a basically very good modern recording.

No-one should see this as a straight replacement for their earlier Borodin cycles, which still hold their place of course. Certainly the interpretations here are less fraught with terror and freighted with oppression than in the earlier versions. This might not be all loss, as even Russian musicians can now treat each work as a string quartet and not a harrowing chapter of autobiography. It may take a few more generations before we lose our consuming interest in the personal and political context of these quartets, but the day will come. (Do you really still think about Bonaparte becoming Emperor when you listen to Beethoven’s Eroica?) Perhaps the later quartets in particular are now granted a more universal significance, as the political and personal conditions in which they were written recede in time. That would only be appropriate for the first post-Soviet Shostakovich cycle from the Borodin Quartet.

There is of course some other music by Shostakovich on a seventh CD. The great Piano Quintet is a very good performance indeed, and perhaps unsurprisingly similar to the former Borodin Quartet version with Richter in timings and interpretation. The other items are all of some interest for their relationship to the great cycle. The unfinished Allegretto for string quartet was discovered only in 2003, marked “Quartet 9/1 “; it is assumed to have been one of the aborted versions of the Ninth Quartet and shares some aspects of its completed successor. It’s not nearly as good as that, but only one composer could have written it. The Two Pieces for String Quartet (Elegy & Polka) are arrangements written in 1931, seven years before Quartet No.1. The Elegy is Katerina’s aria from scene 3 of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mstensk, and almost as touching as the original. The Polka is the familiar popular number from the ballet The Golden Age. The Preludes from Podrugi (The Girlfriends) are taken from a chamber music film score of 1936 using string quartet, in some items with additions for piano and trumpet. One of the themes became the basis for the second movement variations in the First String Quartet. The film score is the sole item recorded live.

The quartets are organised on the CDs in numerical order, which is a boon, since they are easy to find and they are sometimes best heard as a cycle. Elizabeth Wilson’s booklet note is a very good one of course, but she has been given far too little space, so if you want to supplement that with the full background life and times, as well as full non-technical descriptions of the quartets and many an illuminating interview about playing the music with such players as members of the Emerson and Fitzwilliam Quartets, here is the excellent book I turn to most often: Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his String Quartets (Yale UP 2011). If you want some context, but are happy also to read about some technical aspects of the music’s construction, then the chapter by Judith Kuhn, “The string quartets” in The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich, Ed. Fairclough and Fanning (Cambridge UP, 2008), is excellent and concise. It is perhaps best to own the first and borrow the second from the library. Online, there is Stephen Harris’ site with full notes on each quartet and its background, as well as articles on various wider aspects of them. For a full listing and brief notes on all the currently available recorded cycles, there also is this site.

Roy Westbrook

Disc 1
String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49 [14:15]
String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68 [35:06]
Disc 2
String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73 [33:49]
String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83 [25:57]
Disc 3
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 [31:23]
String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 [25:52]
String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 [13:10]
Disc 4
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 [24:21]
String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117 [27:57]
String Quartet No. 10 in A flat major, Op. 118 [25:39]
Disc 5
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 [18:48]
String Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133 [27:19]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138 [21:27]
Disc 6
String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major, Op. 142 [29:51]
String Quartet No. 15 In E Flat Minor, Op. 144 [37:11]
Disc 7
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 [34:11]
String Quartet Movement; Allegretto (unfinished) [9:08]
Two Pieces for String Quartet (Elegy & Polka), Op. 36a [7:11]
Preludes from Podrugi (The Girlfriends), Op. 41a [14:14]

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