A Survey of Shostakovich String Quartet Cycles
by Jens F Laurson
First published on IonArts
This is a survey of - hopefully - every extant recorded cycle of Shostakovich's
String Quartets. As opposed to the 16
quartets of Beethoven's, where the survey covers nearly six dozen
cycles, there are 'only' about 20 such cycles of Shostakovich's String
Quartets out. For now, they are neatly bookended by the Borodin Quartet's
first and fourth attempt at a cycle. (Raising the question, à
la Can you step in the same river twice?, whether a string
quartet is still the same string quartet 50 years later, with all new
The Borodin also raises the question as to what is a complete-enough
cycle. Their first cycle, containing quartets 1-13, certainly counts
- it was complete at the time and 13 out of 15 ain't bad. The Borodin's
digital re-recordings of quartets 2,
3, 7, 8 & 12 for Virgin, however, which may or may not have
been intended to be a cycle, don't qualify in my book. (Also, I don't
think they are particularly good). Neither do the Hagen Quartet, who
recorded six quartets (3,
7, 8 & 4,
11, 14), the excellent Jerusalem Quartet's 6/15 cycle (ionarts
review), the St. Petersburg Quartet's first go at it for Sony (1,
2, 4 + 3,
5, 7), or the Rubio Quartet's first attempt at a cycle on Globe
from 1996 - 98 (1,
4, 8, 2,
3, 5 + 7,
9, 12) or the Aviv Quartet's eight quartets (
4, 7, 11, 1,10,13
or the Prazak's two discs (7,
15 + piano quintet), or the Kopelman Quartet's recordings on Nimbus
8 + Miaskovsky, 2
+ E.Kissin [sic!], 3,
7 + Prokofiev & 10
+ Weinberg), although their programming was innovative and prefigured
the Pacifica cycle. (Then again, it still seems ongoing and might yet
be finished.) There's even the Japanese Morgaua Quartet recording these
works (when they don't dabble in progressive rock) with a cycle about
half-way through and available only from Amazon/via
I would like to make a plea to generously inclined readers with more
information and knowledge of the subject than I have to lend a helping
hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae. I am explicitly
grateful for any such pointers, hinters, and corrections and apologize
for any bloomers. Unlike some earlier discographies, this one does intend
to be comprehensive. So I am especially grateful if sets that I have
missed are pointed out to me. I have not listened to them all, of course,
but most. (Please send any comments to
Len Mullenger for forwarding to Jens)
Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov, Dmitry Shebalin, Valentin Berlinsky
The first recorded DSCH SQ4t Cycle. The Borodin was not the quartet
that premiered (most of) the Shostakovich Quartets - the Beethoven [2-14],
Glazunov  and Taneyev  Quartets did, but they were the first
to finish a recording of the cycle. Except that Shostakovich himself
wasn't finished and went on to compose two more quartets. A classic,
despite missing quartets 14 and 15, not the least for featuring the
original lineup of the Borodin Quartet. The sound is surprisingly good.
A review from Tony Haywood on MusicWeb can be found here.
Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasily Shirinsky (Nikolai ZabavnikovVadim), Borisovsky
(Fyodor Druzhinin), Sergei Shirinsky (Yevgeny Altman)
The Beethoven Quartet was working closely with Shostakovich and premiered
all his quartets except for his first (of which they played the Moscow
premiere a month after the Glazunov Quartet's first performance) and
last (during the rehearsals of which Dmitri Tsyganov died) and Nos.
11 through 14 are each dedicated to one of the members of the Beethoven
String Quartet. The recordings were made for Melodiya and have been
put together and re-issued (apparently with some audio issues) by Doremi.
You don't get more of a breath of authenticity, presumably. See review
Vladmir Ovcharek, Grigori Lutski, Vissarion Soloview, Josif Levinson
The Taneyev (or Taneiev) Quartet, after the Beethoven and Borodin Quartets,
is the third of a triumvirate of quartets that were in close touch with
the composer and whose readings might be called 'authentic'. The luxurious
Korean Aulos re-release is long out of print; individual copies of these
quartets on various labels are floating about on Amazon and the like.
A re-issue from Melodiya would be very much appreciated. A review from
Jonathan Woolf on MusicWeb can be found here.
separately as downloads from Presto
Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Sparey, Alan George, Joan Davies
The Fitzwilliams also worked together with Shostakovich to produce
(some of) these recordings. The touch of composer-induced authenticity
therefore also extends to this ensemble, which was the quartet in charge
of familiarizing a Western audience with these stunning works. By all
accounts, they did a great job - and for at least two decades this was
the go-to cycle in the UK and beyond, where and when the second Borodin
Cycle's incarnations weren't consistently available. This cycle was
also licensed by the Musical Heritage Society.
Borodin Quartet II
Mikhail Kopelman, Andrei Abramenkov, Dmitri Shebalin, Valentin Berlinsky
(P: Sviatoslav Richter, Q2: Prokofiev Quartet)
The second cycle from the Borodin, in stereo throughout and with a
terrific bonus in form of the Piano Quintet (with Richter) and the Two
Pieces for String Octet, has long been considered the definitive in
authenticity and all-around quality. It might still be. It's terrific
and terrifying and wildly satisfying and the only questionmark about
it is the strange fact that it repeatedly lapses into inexplicable out-of-printness.
Gritty and involving; occasionally on the slow side. The Sixth and Ninth
Quartet and the Quintet were recorded live which adds in atmosphere
more than it detracts in sound quality. This is one of the three sets
recommended in Surprised by Beauty.
Andre Shishlov, Sergei Pishchugin, Alexander Galkovsky, Alexander Korchagin
Originally released on Olympia, the Shostakovich Quartet's recording
of the Shostakovich Quartets is one of the hardest to find online. Therein
is a lesson for future generations of chamber ensembles: Do not name
yourself after a famous composer if you have any intentions of recording
said composer widely. It's every search-engine's nightmare. Pity, because
the cycle is rather good and was a perennial Penguin Guide favorite.
It is currently available in a bargain Alto box.
| Purchase this through MusicWeb
for £22.50 (UK) & £26.00 world-wide.
Brodsky Quartet I
Michael Thomas, Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy, Jacqueline Thomas
The first cycle of the Brodsky Quartet, recorded in Berlin shortly
after they performed all the quartets in concert in London. It might
have been meant to become the successor to the Fitzwilliam cycle but
never quite got the necessary traction. James Leonard called them "coolly
objective, almost disinterested, and certainly unaffecting performances...
[with the quartet's] immense anguish and despairing depths... missing."
A review of this set can be found on MusicWeb.
Manhattan String Quartet
Eric Lewis, Roy Lewis, John Dexter, Judith Glyde
I know little to none about this cycle, except that it was initially
well received in the States, with Time Magazine selecting it as the
Best of 1991 in the chamber music category. James Leonard disagrees,
considering them "the worst cycle of the works ever recorded, the
most consistently technically and interpretively flawed recordings of
the works ever made..." The snippets I've heard suggest that Leonard
has a point - althought sheer struggle in these works could always be
euphemized as "edge of the seat playing", I suppose.
6 individ. CDs
György Selmeczi, Péter Szüts, Sándor Papp, György
Naxos got into the fray with their Éder Quartet. Never boxed,
this cycle is available only individually. The quartet goes back quite
a bit; they won second (top) prize at the ARD International String Quartet
Competition in Munich in 1977 and had been a staple in the Naxos stable,
also recording Mozart for them.
Release: 1994 - 1998
6 individ. CDs
Emerson String Quartet
Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel
The Emerson's cycle made a big splash when it came out, winning a GRAMMY
each for Best Classical and best Chamber Performance. Do you know the
"Structure" Instagram filter? This is Shostakovich with that
filter to the max. Details are in sharp relief; harsh is very harsh;
lyrical is very lyrical. I've always found it glib and cold and wasn't
enthused at the time (nor did I like the applause that was retained
on these live recordings), but it's been a long time since I have heard
these recordings and at this point I only have a memory of an impression,
not of the performances themselves. I am, actually, intrigued to dive
back into them before long. A MusicWeb review can be found here.
Dirk van de Velde, Dirk van den Hauwe, Marc Sonnaert, Peter Devos
The second time the Rubio Quartet - named after a luthier - set out
to record the cycle of DSCH string quartets, they got to the finish
line for the Dutch super-bargain Brilliant label. MusicWeb review here.
For being on Brilliant, it is probably underrated.
St. Petersburg Quartet
Alla Aranovskaya, Ilya Teplyakov, Konstanin Kats (Alexei Koptev), Leonid
Shukaev (P: Igor Uryash)
This cycle came out to mixed reviews but James Leonard thought it "strong-willed
and clear-eyed, [with] every technical aspect of the scores... clarified,
but.. also passionate as well as compassionate, [with] every emotional
element in the scores... fully expressed." You can access the liner
notes of this recording on Hyperion's website here.
+ opp. 57, 67
Gina McCormack, Catherine Yates (Vicci Wardman), Sarah-Jane Bradley,
Helen Thatcher (P: Martin Roscoe)
The first Shostakovich cycle performed by an all-female ensemble. Mixed
reviews, some very good, some ho-hum. MusicWeb review of vol
5 here vol.6
Christophe Collette, Dominique Lonca, Vincent Deprecq, Yannick Callier
(P: Claire-Marie Le Guay )
I had found what seemed like aborted remnants of a possible cycle of
the Quatuor Debussys on Amazon, but try as I may, I did not find
anything other than a Volume 1 and Volume 3.
Thanks (many thanks!) to a readers comment below it was pointed
out that such a cycle did exist. Evidently I hadnt been looking
hard enough and lo and behold I found them on the quartets website.
Volumes 2 through 6 are still available there
but Ive since
been able to track all six volumes on Amazon, as well.
Nos. 4, 8, 13
Nos. 3, 7, 10
Nos. 1, 5, 12
Nos. 6, 9, 11
Nos. 2 & 14
No. 15 + Quintet
Marc Danel, Gilles Millet, Tony Nys, Guy Danel
This cycle, first out on fuga libera and recently re-issued on Alpha,
has always been very well regarded. As a Gallic (Belgian) take on the
quartets it adds a flavor hitherto not present on the market, which
was until then made up largely of Russian and Anglo quartets. If there
was a fourth cycle that we'd recommend in the Shostakovich chapter of
Surprised by Beauty, it would probably be this one. MusicWeb
Dora Bratchkova, Ewgenia Grandjean, Gerhards Müller, Alina Kudelevic
This is the first DSCH-SQ4t cycle by a German string quartet and it
comes with a recommendation by Maxim Shostakovich - and the claim to
be the first recording to stick to the new Urtext editions of the quartets.
Admittedly, I never even knew it existed until researching this discography...
which suggests - actual quality aside - that it never made a splash.
Here's a MusicWeb
The Alexander String Quartet
Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbough, Sandy Wilson (P:
The Alexander Quartet are a splendid ensemble who also have two Beethoven
String Quartet cycles to their name. On this two-partite cycle they
don't just add the Piano Quintet but also, for the first time, the re-discovered
movement of one of the first two (both aborted) attempts at a Ninth
Quartet. They also throw in string quartet transcriptions for select
Preludes and Fugues. There's a MusicWeb review
here. Like all their recent releases, these recordings were made
at New York Citys American Academy of Arts and Letters,
String Quartets v.1
+ op.57, op.87/1, 10, 15, 17
String Quartets v.2
Unfinished Q4t, Allegretto 9a
Sebastian Schmidt, Nanette Schmidt, Roland Glassl, Bernhard Schmidt
The Mandelring cycle on Audite was the first (and remains, as of late
2018, the only) set on SACD. It is among the very best sounding cycles,
even on the Red-Book CD layer. To quote from the recommendation in Surprised
by Beauty: "The Mandelring Quartett are Shostakovich-seducers,
not Shostakovich-enforcers and they bring out the sheer beauty of all
of Shostakovichs brilliantly harrowing ugliness. Three of its
four members are siblings and the fourth plays as if he were a family
member. They perform as if these quartets were taking place inside a
single soul, achieving an extraordinary quality of interiority and unanimity.
Accentuating surfaces more than spikes, corners, and gore, their rhythmic
beat is propulsive but rarely maniacal and their splendid sound matches
that of the recording: a perfect foil to more fervent, rougher interpretations."
In-depth ionarts review here. Note that the individual releases are
hybrid-SACDs wheras the set is CD-only! MusicWeb review
of Vol 3 here
Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Masumi Per Rostad, Brandon Vamos
The Pacifica Quartet is the third cycle that gets a recommendation
in Surprised by Beauty: Their set "invigorates and enlightens the
Shostakovich quartets with couplings of contemporary quartets: Nikolay
Myaskovskys 13th on volume 1, Prokofievs 2nd on volume 2,
Mieczyslaw Weinbergs 6th on volume 3, and Alfred Schnittkes
3rd on volume 4. The performances bristle with energy and their Shostakovich
ends up setting a new standard amid already strong competition."
+ other SQ4ts
Brodsky Quartet II
Daniel Rowland, Kian Belton, Paul Cassidy, Jacqueline Thomas
The second time the Brodsky Quartet recorded these works: I wonder
how many people thought that once was more than enough. Well, there
it is anyway, live from Amsterdam. Only the husband-and-wife team of
violist and cellist are still the same from their first go. There's
a detailed review
Borodin Quartet III
Ruben Aharonian, Sergey Lomovsky, Igor Naidin, Vladimir Balshin (P:
The third DSCH SQ4t Cycle from the Borodin (not counting their one-off
digital recording of a few quartets for Virgin)! The cast - post-Berlinsky
and Abramenkov - is now entirely new from what it was on any of the
previous cycles, but the name lives on and, presumably, the tradition.
This new cycle includes the Piano Quintet, the Unfinished Quartet "Allegretto
9/1" (second, after the Alexander Quartet to record this rather
new find), the Two Pieces for String Quartet op.36a, and - uniquely
among cycles listed here, Music from Podrugi, op.41a, arranged for string
quartet, piano and trumpet. (With none less than Sergei Nakariakov on
trumpet and Alexei Lubimov as the pianist. Alexei Volodin plays in the
Quintet.) The arrival of this set has finally made me put this discography
+ opp.57, 36a, op.41a, Allegretto 9/1