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Outcast MTM04

Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
String Quartet No 3 (1983) [21:57]
Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
String Quartet No 1 (1974) [25:07]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110 (1960) [22:36]
Matangi String Quartet
rec. 13-15 July 2021, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium
MATANGI MTM04 [69:40]

From the outset I have to declare an interest in this recording, knowing most of the people involved, having been hired to translate the booklet and generally being around to help with texts of one kind or another. My example of the CD is therefore a nice signed complimentary one rather than an anonymously set out review copy, along with an equally nice free ticket to the launch concert - get me with my fringe benefits. I therefore feel an obligation to (re)state my policy on such matters: if I didn’t objectively find the recording good enough to review positively I wouldn’t review it at all. Not having heard the performances or recording in advance adds to this objectivity, but whatever bias you may seek to infer I will stand by whatever remarks I make in any court of cultural connoisseurship, and sincerely hope you will agree with me should you get as far as hearing this CD.

This is a top notch release in every way. The recording is detailed and vibrant but not uncomfortably close. Pretty much every nuance in these excellent performances is captured, the wide dynamic range demanded and delivered and the clear commitment of the playing keeps you keenly involved from start to finish. The booklet that accompanies the CD is a little too bulky for the gatefold packaging resulting in a mild bulge, but at least it’s easy to get in and out of the sleeve. The notes in English and Dutch explain the concept of Outcast, which involves composers who “stuck their necks out with their work”. We are reminded that Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase in preparation for his arrest in the days of Stalin, of the suspicion and suppression of Schnittke’s work by his government, and Silvestrov’s opposition both to the Soviet regime and the rulers of present-day Russia. The Matangi Quartet has a special bond with Valentin Silvestrov, having worked with him and having made him Artist in Residence during their (Un)heard Music Festival in 2017.

Schnittke’s Third String Quartet is a remarkable work that clashes old and new in its quotes from Orlando di Lasso, Beethoven and others, and also connecting to Shostakovich through the theme from his Eighth String Quartet. This sharply contrasting blend of stylistic surprises supposedly makes this one of Schnittke’s more approachable quartets, but the Matangis pull no punches in the hard-etched nature and heightened tensions of the score as a whole and the ride is by no means an easy one. There are a few recordings of this work around now but this is a world-class version. Timings are longer than with the Kapralova Quartet’s live version on the Arco Diva label (review) but there is no sense of drag or lack of urgency in the drama of the whole by way of comparison. The Molinari Quartet is recommendable on the Atma label (review), as is the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch, but Schnittke fans are already likely to have one or other of these complete editions and Outcast is a different beast. As stated, this recording can stand comparison with any alternative I can name.

The opening of Valentin Silvestrov’s First String Quartet goes entirely against the grain of the 1970s avant-garde, raising the curtain on a space of uneasy beauty. Silvestrov’s modernity saw him discounted as a composer suitable for the general public, and he was refused membership of the Union of Soviet Composers, which meant he was effectively silenced in his own country. This quartet is largely quiet and intimate, the players unifying and conversing ruminatively, the effect of the whole putting one in a meditative but by no means somnolent state. I have only heard this work before on an ECM album from 2002 with the Rosamunde Quartet (ECM 1776). This version is a few minutes shorter than with the Matangi Quartet and is a little more intense as a result, but both have a magnetic quality. You have to give this music its time, to assimilate a slowly developing architecture that reaches its golden-section passage of genuine drama over an extended arc, the final bars leaving us abandoned and lonely on the windswept tundra. This is certainly the kind of listening experience that leaves a powerful impression.

Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet is, among other things, the composer’s mournful response to the WWII devastation he encountered while in Dresden in 1960. Writing in 2022 as Russian troops invade Ukraine, the composer’s dedication of this piece “to the victims of war and fascism” could hardly be more appropriate and moving, and the Matangi Quartet’s recording of this now justly famous music, filled with shade and light and intensely felt nuance, entirely does it justice. The playing here doesn’t overdo nor does it underplay Shostakovich’s emotional intent. There is melancholy and violence here enough without adding quirky mannerisms, and I’m glad to hear this is a performance that stays true to the essence of the score without trying to do something artificially ‘different’. I’ve heard quite a few very good recordings of this work, including the Alexander Quartet (review), the Carducci Quartet (review) and, movingly indeed, the Hagen Quartet (review). There are dozens more and I will also hold on dearly to the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s 1970s cycle on the Decca label, also pointing you gently towards our survey page for an overview of such collections. For whatever reason, there will always be one or other version that hits you harder than another, that might have the kind of ‘soul’ you connect with more. This is an entirely subjective thing. Listen properly, let the Matangi Quartet’s recording have its effect and I doubt you will find much to criticise. The tragedy is clear, the accents bite, the dances swirl with deadly sickness, and Shostakovich’s upper-range intensity can curl your teeth. It’s all good.

The theme of this programme is clear enough, but don’t forget to have a look in the right-hand sleeve of the foldout package. There you will find a secretive slip of paper with texts that relate dissent of one kind or another to music, to the messages it might contain and only potentially transmit, and alongside these, one thought each from the three composers recorded.

Dominy Clements

Maria-Paula Majoor (violin 1)
Daniel Torrico Menacho (violin 2)
Karsten Kleijer (viola)
Arno van der Vuurst (cello)

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