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shostakovich vol1 96418
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
String Quartets - Volume 1
String Quartet No.3 in F major Op73
String Quartet No.5 in B flat major Op92
String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor Op108
String Quartet No.8 in C minor Op110
String Quartet No.9 in E flat major Op117
Quartetto Nos
rec. 2021, BartokStudio, Bernareggio, Italy
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

Rather like his friend and contemporary, Britten, Shostakovich has weathered the storms of time and modernity well and his popularity in the last few years has reached unprecedented peaks. A lot of this is on the back of his symphonic output and on his concertos which seem to speak to the current generation in a way that Mahler spoke to the Sixties generation. All of this attention has meant that Shostakovich’s later music, more often damned with faint praise in his lifetime, is now being critically reassessed. Nowhere is this more true than with the chamber music of which the jewel in the crown is, of course, the cycle of quartets. The bulk of Shostakovich’s string quartets can be considered late works and whilst none of the last of his works in this genre are included in this set a casual glance at the opus numbers will show that even as low numbered a quartet as No.7 comes from his late maturity. This in itself makes this cycle a curiosity as all the other great quartet composers wrote works in the genre throughout their career. Shostakovich was already 32 by the time he composed his first quartet but even that disguises the fact that the bulk of his fifteen quartets were written very late in his life with all bar the first two coming after the Second World War.

The cycle of quartets is, alongside those by Bartk, the most impressive composed during the twentieth century and, I would argue, an even more impressive achievement than Shostakovich’s magnificent symphonies. No.8 has always been a popular work since its composition and deservedly so but its ubiquity has tended to eclipse the greatness of the others. Unlike that eighth quartet or the more public symphonies, the other quartets can seem daunting in the absence of a more overt political back story. This is beginning to change and based on the number of releases in recent years, younger quartets are embracing these superb works as part of their core repertoire.

I recently had the good fortune to review Igor Levit’s extraordinary recording of the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. In contrasting his version with the classic sets by Nikolayeva, I noted that there now seemed to be a second school of Shostakovich interpretation developing distinct from those by Soviet era performers who were often dedicatees of the works recorded. This new generation, of which Levit is a prime example, seem to find more colour and variety in the music. This is Shostakovich less as chronicler of his times and more Shostakovich as universal musician for all times. I should stress that both traditions have immense validity and I will not be letting go of Mravinsky, Oistrakh or Rostropovich in this music any time soon. When it comes to the quartets, this new approach is helpful in getting novice listeners past the forbidding exteriors of these scores and into their thrilling heart. Pioneers like the Borodins or the Fitzwilliam Quartet will always hold a dear place in my heart but I am equally thrilled to hear what the Carduccis, the Pavel Haas and the Artemis Quartets, to name but a few, are up to in this endlessly astonishing music.

Which brings me to the Quartetto Nos. I will start with the latest quartet included in what is the first volume in a projected series, No.9. I do so partly because it is a good example of the effect of the long shadow of No.8 on the others in the series. This great masterpiece belies any notion that Shostakovich’s powers in any way diminished in the sixties and is the full equal of the more celebrated sibling which preceded it. I also start with it because this recording by the Quartetto Nos is an exceptionally good one. I started by comparing the scherzo third movement with the reference set by the Fitzwilliams and the Italians just seem sharper, more caustic and yet also more playful. It is unfair to contrast a much older recording technically with a brand new one but the superb sound given to the Nos really does make a difference. It is simultaneously richer and in closer focus. Listen to the way the pizzicati in the first movement skitter like raindrops. There is a lot of lyricism to this quartet, another dimension of Shostakovich’s musical personality not often heard in the symphonies, that the Nos mine to great effect. We are reminded that this quartet was dedicated to his new wife. The first of the piece’s two slow movements really sings on this recording.

Turning to No.8 there is of course much fiercer competition. I went back to the mother lode, the recordings by the Beethoven Quartet, an ensemble indissolubly associated with the creation of the Shostakovich quartets, to provide some context for this new recording. Apart from being reminded just how frenzied the Russian recording of the eighth quartet is, it further underlined the distinction between what I have earlier called the Soviet tradition and that of modern performers. The neurotic febrile tension in the earlier performance could only come from living in those times and I have no intention of expecting such an approach from the Quartetto Nos. (Incidentally I was listening to the complete set of the quartets by the Beethoven Quartet on a highly recommendable 2017 release from Doremi) I suspect most listeners will go to the eighth for a visceral evocation of the historical period yet the more introspective, less febrile approach taken by the Nos has a lot to recommend it though perhaps not as obviously as in No.9.

A significant feature of this new recording is a welcome insistence on finding colour in this music. When I listen to these quartets I am constantly thinking that this is where the firecracker modernist of the fourth symphony went with all his bag of tricks and relentless invention. He made a brief, enigmatic reappearance in the ninth and in his last symphony but generally the Shostakovich of the symphony and concerto is a rather sober soul. The performance here of the seventh string quartet, itself a somewhat enigmatic work written after the death of the composer’s first wife, exemplifies what I liked so much about the Nos’ manner. Even at full stretch, as in the finale, which must surely be an expression of personal not societal grief, they find a strange luminous beauty of sound in the double stopping that dominates the wild first half of the movement. They seem to be making the point that Shostakovich doesn’t have to be ugly in sound to register. They aren’t effete in manner but always alert to the musical possibilities of writing that contains greater variety than many alternative accounts would suggest. This score, brief but haunting, might stand for the buried treasure awaiting discovery in the Shostakovich cycle as a whole.

If the eighth quartet is the equivalent of the tenth symphony then the third quartet’s counterpart is probably the symphony No.8. Both are sombre, far reaching meditations on the impact of war even if the quartet moves from a Haydnesque opening movement, albeit with distinctly nervous undertones, to the cataclysm and its aftermath. Even more than the symphony, the third quartet is concerned with the human cost of war – the heartfelt return of the Schubertian theme of the slow movement that seems to quote Der Greise Kopf from Winterreise is gut wrenching in this performance before fading out into the stratosphere. The line from the Schubert song – ‘how far it is still to the grave’ – seems appropriate to the mood of the post war movements and Shostakovich’s expectations of that period.

The Nos approach to this intriguing work might be described as consistently cantabile. Even in the spiky second movement, they play beautifully. Anyone raised on Soviet era Shostakovich might baulk at this but it is worth recalling that, in this fraught post war period, to embrace traditional abstract musical traditions like quartet writing was in itself a radical act courting accusations of formalism. Music was meant to evoke socialist realism, not concern itself with beauty of form. As my colleague here at MWI, Nstor Castiglione, pointed out in his recent review of a recording of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, the composer’s favoured ensemble, the Beethoven Quartet always leavened their sound with a surprising amount of sweetness along with the grit. The Nos play with plenty of grit as demonstrated by the third movement but there is always that sense of lamenting, singing voices behind and responding to the violence.

The fifth quartet clearly presents commentators with a challenge. The translated notes by Oreste Bossini included with this release in effect raise their hands in the face of music which is, apparently, ‘complex and inscrutable in its density and depth’. Hardly words to send the prospective listener rushing to the CD player. Even the ever trusty Wikipedia limits itself to dates, movement titles and first performance details (it was in 1953 by the ever trusty Beethoven Quartet if you are interested) In his note for the St Petersburg Quartet recording, Robert Matthew-Walker, as well as declaring it a masterpiece, notes its close technical and structural relationship to and influence on the much more famous Symphony No.10. All this does serve to illustrate the excessive link between the historical period Shostakovich lived in and how his works are perceived. Without some kind of political narrative, we seem to be stumped as to how to respond to works such as this fifth quartet in a way that we aren’t when faced by a quartet by Mozart.

Yet there does seem to be an autobiographical element to even a quartet like this that seems to be resolutely absolute music. During the development section of the first movement all four instruments declaim a new melody fff. Not just any melody but a quotation from a clarinet trio by the astonishing Russian composer, Galina Ustvolskaya, to whom the composer had earlier proposed marriage only to be rejected. Knowing this fact, seems to me, to transform this movement into one concerned with ardent, turbulent feelings of desire. It is a fact that also gives me an opportunity to get on my soapbox about what a scandal it is that Ustvolskaya is still only known as a footnote to a less well known Shostakovich quartet rather than on the merits of her music. This is little short of a disgrace. There is some discussion about whether the quartet concerns Shostakovich’s love for the woman or her music but I am not sure Shostakovich would have made any more of a distinction between the two than Britten might have made between his love for Peter Pears the man and Pears the singer.

What we get is a passionate rather than a gaunt work and the Nos Quartet’s singing style is glorious here. Have a listen to the soaring, high lying violin melody that ends this opening movement before ushering in the second. It is like an austere, ecstatic lark ascending. That second movement, one of Shostakovich’s finest, has never sounded more like an intimate, clandestine assignation. I will, with some justification, be accused of both contradicting myself and allowing my imagination to run away with me but I stand by the point I made in my review of the Levit recording of the preludes and fugues: there are many more Shostakovichs than the victim of Stalinism. As Robert Matthew-Walker points out whatever the inspiration behind this fifth quartet, it is worked out with the most consummate of musical skill. In cleaving to the music what the Quartetto Nos give us is a Shostakovich in the round in all his multifaceted genius.

The Artemis Quartet take a much tougher approach to the piece, more in keeping with the links to the tenth symphony but less passionate that the Nos version, more coherent with the public Shostakovich. Even the lovely second subject sounds nervy and tense. The melody at the end of the opening movement sounds bewildered and lost rather than soaring. It is a wonderful performance but very different from the equally wonderful Nos.

It is a great time to be discovering the Shostakovich quartets and the listener is almost spoilt for choice with exciting new recordings joining, supplementing and challenging the great recordings of the past. If you have any sense that these works are just a bit too austere then this recording is really one to get as it has given me immense pleasure as well as the more expected qualities of a recording of music by Shostakovich. The best recordings leave one with an enhanced admiration for the composer and this is one of the best as it left me in awe of the breadth as well as the intensity of Shostakovich’s genius.

David McDade

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