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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartets 1-15
Two Pieces for String Quartet (Elegy & Polka), Op. 36a [6:29]
Shostakovich Quartet
rec. 1978-1988, Moscow, Russia
ALTO ALC5002 [5 CDs: 378:57]

This cycle of the Shostakovich quartets by The Shostakovich Quartet was first heard on Olympia, then Regis, and is now on the Alto label. We should be grateful that Alto have kept it available, and at bargain price, for it is an important document in the reception of these wonderful works, recorded in Russia starting three years after the composer’s death and completed just before the fall of the Soviet Union. It has been admired since it first emerged, alongside but not noticeably inferior to the famous recordings by the Borodin and the Beethoven Quartets, (the latter group being the one who gave almost all the premieres). This group formed when they were still students in 1967. For these young Muscovite professional string players in the Kruschev and Brezhnev eras, this music was still new and very much in the air, and these performances have a powerful atmosphere of being close to the source.

There are no juvenilia among the Shostakovich quartets, or even “early works”, though that could describe the enjoyable if unimportant transcriptions of Op.36. But the first quartet proper is Op.49 and was written after the 5th Symphony. With great cycles we sometimes assume that as the artist gets older the pieces get “better”. But in this cycle numbers 2 and 3 are as great as those written much later. Even No.1 is important, although the composer said he “wrote the first page as a kind of exercise in quartet form not thinking to complete it.” Not only did he complete that and fourteen more, but they are all in different keys, and he later said he planned to compose one quartet in each major and minor key. He did not live to write twenty-four alas, but these fifteen can be thought of as a true (if incomplete) cycle, rather than just a series. And, of course, some of them have elements, including motifs, in common.
The Shostakovich Quartet make an ingratiating, lyrical start to No.1, observing the series of crescendi and diminuendi up to fig. 4, and not overdoing the ensuing cello glissandi - in other words they observe the details in the score but don’t make too much of the passing incident, keeping a firm sense of the music’s direction. No.2 is a more substantial work, “Duration: 32 minutes” says the score, but it often plays, as here, for nearer 35 minutes. First violin, Andrei Shislov, plays with fine tone and great intensity in the “Recitative and Romance” of the second movement. The ghostly third movement Valse is characterised well, as is the finale’s Orthodox chant-like theme, and its ensuing variations. No.3 is cast in five movements, and the moods of both the carefree opening of the Allegretto and the lamentation of the Adagio are well captured by the players. Quartet No.4 opens beguilingly, with its folk-like theme over a drone bass, but these players can build intensity rapidly, which is often essential in these works, and they really relish the pesante marking of the kletzmer theme in the finale.

No.5 has a ferocious first movement here – few groups on record exceed the fierce intensity of this performance (from around 7:40 on) – surely Shostakovich was jesting in describing the work in his inscription as a “modest gift” for its dedicatees, the Beethoven Quartet. The Shostakovich Quartet are very affecting too in the bleak slow movement, until the change at fig. 64 (4:18) to the second section, a lovely moment to which the players are highly sensitive. In No.6 one touchstone of any performance is the third movement Lento, as transcendent a three-page movement as can be imagined. This certainly shows the calibre of the playing of Alexander Galkovsky (viola) and Alexander Korchagin (cello), as they launch this noble passacaglia. After an alert and accomplished account of the briefest of the quartets, the 12-minute No.7, the Shostakovich Quartet produce a performance of the best-known of them all, No.8, that does magnificent justice to its autobiographical drama. Its fugal opening, its deep melancholy, and the anger in its references to Jewish music (quoted from the Second Piano Trio) are all superbly delineated.

The five movements of No.9 play continuously – this one of the “great symphonic quartets” says Judith Kuhn (in the Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich, 2008). Its two slow movements are expertly sustained in mood here, and the central scherzo with its trademark skipping anapaests is brilliantly played. No.10’s first movement is emotionally neutral, mostly restrained in mood, but still absorbing in these hands. The scherzo, marked Allegretto furioso, has all the bite that implies. The adagio (another passacaglia) and the folksy finale set the seal on this very fine 10th. The 11th Quartet too is another satisfying performance – there really are no failures or even “near-misses” in this recorded cycle. Its seven short movements play continuously for 16 minutes, according to the score, and this performance runs for 16:36. Often groups indulge it a bit more than that - the superb recent cycle from the Borodin Quartet stretches it almost to 19 minutes (Decca, 2018).

The wonderful Quartet No.12 is exploratory in some ways; it is the one where Shostakovich experiments with a (basically tonal) twelve note row, and 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 fifteen quartets overall have an amazing range of quartet textures, features that require a group to be well inside the idiom to make them ‘speak’ as intended, as they do here. No.13 is the only one in a single movement (as distinct from several movements played without a break). It is a bleak work, mostly slow, and it is dedicated to the violist of the Beethoven Quartet. Hence the viola has plenty to do, and he and his colleagues spare us little in this harrowing account, right through to the crescendo up to the scream marked sffff that ends the piece with an image of death.

The 14th quartet has three longish movements, and is not so death-haunted as the works either side of it, but overflows with tuneful and dance-like passages. The Shostakovich Quartet offer a winning and affectionate interpretation. But with the formidable No.15 we are faced with a prelude to extinction. The six movements of that last quartet are all marked Adagio or Adagio Molto (for the fifth movement funeral march). Monotony is avoided by the players’ sensitivity to the different kinds of motion, texture and harmonic tension within the prevailing slowness, and the Shostakovich Quartet achieve a riveting stillness, their 36:45 timing approaching the Beethoven Quartet’s 37:24 minutes. In No.15 Shostakovich was well aware of the challenge to players and to listeners, but told the first performers "play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving from sheer boredom."

There is nothing boring about this very fine string playing. We hear the result of their excellent chamber musical manners, that ability to develop a shared understanding of an idiom and execute it convincingly. The recorded sound is quite decent for 1980’s stereo and lets us hear at least as much detail as we would in most live performances. The balance is middle distance, not too remote or too close, and it has the right ambience for a quartet recital. Modern recordings let us hear more of course and have greater range and realism, but sometimes at the expense of atmosphere. This cycle can be strongly recommended as a set of fine interpretations, superbly played, that bring us close to the Russian wellspring of this great music.

Roy Westbrook

Shostakovich Quartet: Andrei Shislov and Sergei Pishchugin, violins; Alexander Galkovsky, viola, Alexander Korchagin, cello

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