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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet No. 2 in C minor (1885) [26.51]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [19.41]
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 27 (1945) [25.24]
Dragon Quartet
rec. 2017, Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

This is a most compelling release on Channel Classics of string quartets by Borodin, Shostakovich and Weinberg. Formed in 2012, the Dragon Quartet comprises young Chinese musicians, first violinist Ning Feng, second violinist Wang Xiaomao, violist Zheng Wenxiao and cellist Qin Liwei. The programme is stimulating, and very much to my taste. The opening work by Borodin is one of the greatest and most admired string quartets in the repertoire. There follows a twentieth-century masterwork by Shostakovich, and finally a work relatively new to the repertoire, by Weinberg, in the hundredth anniversary year of his birth.

Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, written in 1881 at the summer retreat of Zhitovo, south-east of Moscow, was premičred the next year in St. Petersburg. The score bears a dedication to his wife Ekaterina Protopova, and is essentially a love letter in music commemorating their first meeting in Heidelberg twenty years before. It is cast in four movements. The famous and much loved third movement Notturno is sometimes given as a stand-alone work in many arrangements, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s transcription for violin and orchestra, and orchestrations by Sargent and Tscherepnin. Notable in the score, especially in the first and third movements, is an extensive exchange between the cello and the violin. It is easy to picture Borodin, an accomplished cellist, performing with Ekaterina on her violin. The Dragon Quartet displays its talent in a attractive and characterful account. In the opening movement, they capture that comforting sense of affection which imbues the writing, with its glorious and sweet-toothed main theme. First violinist Ning Feng and cellist Qin Liwei certainly open and maintain an intimate dialogue. The famous third movement Andante: Notturno is outstanding, played with utmost assurance and sensitivity. This piece has been well served in the recording studio. My favourite recording is the Takács Quartet recorded in 1995 for Decca. Other impressive recordings include those by the Borodin Quartet (from 1962 on Decca), the Moscow String Quartet (from 1995 on a release of Borodin Chamber Works on Brilliant Classics), and the Shostakovich Quartet (released in 1994 on Olympia, reissued on Regis).
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 from 1960 is popular in recital and on record. It bears a dedication to The Victims of Fascism and War. The five-movement score was written in a just a few days whilst the composer was on a working trip outside Soviet Russia to Gohrisch near Dresden in East Germany. Shostakovich had seen at first hand the destruction that Allied bombing had inflicted on Dresden. The anguished character of the Quartet No. 8 is said to reflect the composer’s emotions. Set with numerous quotations – both from others and from Shostakovich’s himself, especially the near incessant use of the DSCH motif – the score could be described as a musical autobiography. Strikingly played by the Dragon Quartet, the ferocious yet brief second movement Allegro molto just bursts with dynamic energy. After the flurry of the DSCH motif, I was struck by the abrupt appearance at 0:59 of the Klezmer melody from the composer’s Piano Trio No. 2. The disconcerting fortissimo chords that open the fourth movement Largo have a strong effect. There follows music of a deep anguished quality that seems to reflect lethargy and disillusion. In the Finale marked Largo, the Dragon Quartet create a heart-wrenching feeling of intense desolation and wretchedness, maybe a representation of the composer’s world weariness. Conspicuously, the DSCH motif is heard repeatedly throughout; the movement is virtually built from it.

There are accounts that provide more ferocity but few quartets play as adeptly throughout, with such outstanding unity and precision. With competing recordings of the Shostakovich Quartet No. 8, the accounts I prefer are contained in complete sets. The set that I most regularly play is by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet on Decca. Its performances recorded at the All Church Church, Petersham, Surrey in 1975/1977 are energetic, enthusiastic and worthy of acclaim. Muscular playing of greater dynamic characterises the complete set by the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon. Another set I admire is ‘The Soviet Experience - String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries’ played by the Pacifica Quartet recorded in 2010/2012 for Cedille.
Mieczysław Weinberg, born in Poland in a Jewish family, settled in Moscow in late 1943 and lived there until his death. Weinberg’s music, under-appreciated in his lifetime, has been for some years receiving the attention it deserves. He dedicated his String Quartet No. 5 to the Beethoven String Quartet. Weinberg’s friendship with Shostakovich, right from his early days in Moscow, was close and enduring. Their compositions show mutual influence, often of a competitive nature. Weinberg was to write seventeen quartets over most of his composing career. Like Shostakovich, he composed under the enormous emotional pressure of living and working under the communist system in Soviet Russia. It has been suggested that Bartók’s music, which Weinberg may have encountered early in his career before it became unavailable to him for some decades, was a significant influence on his quartets, especially the later ones.

Weinberg gives an expressive title to each of the five movements. In the hands of the Dragon Quartet, the opening movement Melodia maintains a kind of circling impression as if directionless. The quirky Humoreska, a dance-like Andantino, reminds me of a haughty foxtrot. Marked Allegro molto, the playful Scherzo is a kind of madcap romp. The fourth movement Improvisation feels edgy in character, creating a curious, almost static feel. Infused with folk-like melodies on the surface, the final movement marked Serenata contains an undertow of foreboding. With Weinberg string quartets, the choice is limited. The only account of the String Quartet No. 5 that I have heard is played by Quatuor Danel a release from 2000 which is volume 4 in its Weinberg series of complete quartets on CPO.

The recording was made at Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven: excellent sound, first-class clarity, presence and balance. Clemens Romijn’s booklet notes are informative and easy to read. Brimming with character, these are beautifully judged performances, with especially impressive shaping of phrasing and dynamics.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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