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Hyperion Records

CDA67153 - Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 2 & 3

Recording details: April 1999
St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
Produced by Alexander Gerutsky
Engineered by Gerhard Tses
Release date: August 1999
Total duration: 66 minutes 33 seconds

'An edge-of-the-seat experience as this Russian quartet hurls itself headlong into the scores … deserves an emphatic recommendation and makes one impatient for the ensemble's next Shostakovich disc' (BBC Music Magazine)

'One of the finest chamber recordings of any genre I've heard all year and one that catches the idiom of the music in near-definitive terms. Superbly played and engineered, it's a magnificent beginning to what promises to be a must-hear series' (The Independent on Sunday)

'It is high time that a younger generation of Russian string players should tackle this key oeuvre of 20th-century chamber music, and in the St Petersburg Quartet we surely have the natural successors to the Borodin's crown. These virtuosic and sumptuous-toned accounts of the A and F major quartets easily rival the quasi-orchestral sonority the older quartet brought to this music and they are no less adept at mining the profound melancholy that pervades Shostakovich's great, lamenting slow movements and the mordant, sardonic wit of his parodistic waltzes and scherzos. A dazzling debut' (The Sunday Times)

'These readings warrant strong commendation … Excellent performances.' (Classic CD)

‘Extraordinary intensity and depth’ (Los Angeles Times)

String Quartets Nos 2 & 3
Waltz: Allegro  [6'10]
Allegretto  [6'58]
Adagio  [5'25]
Moderato  [10'38]

This is the first of what will be the entire set of Shostakovich Quartets recorded by the St Petersburg String Quartet on Hyperion. Shostakovich wrote his first string quartet in 1938, with No 2 following six years later in 1944 (three weeks after the completion of his Piano Trio). The Piano Trio and String Quartet No 2 appear, emotionally, to be the obverse of the same coin and although the Quartet contains structural elements such as found in the Piano Trio, it stands entirely on its own as a wholly convincing work of art.

Having achieved a unique mastery of quartet-writing in No 2, by 1946 Shostakovich tackled the medium again. Also by this time, he had successfully tackled a formal challenge which had long fascinated Beethoven—the joining-together of movements of different character, yet done in such a way as to make their continuation both seamless and inevitable. Shostakovich had done this in the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, as well as in the Piano Quintet and Piano Trio, but had not thus far attempted it in quartet writing. The Quartet No 3, which is in some respects superficially akin to the Ninth Symphony, revealed new facets of this great composer's compositional mastery, and plumbed considerable depths for Shostakovich than before in this medium.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Whilst, in the history of music, there have been composers equally at home in the distinct disciplines of symphony and string quartet, and who have contributed greatly to the repertoires of each genre, from time to time one encounters symphonic masters whose adult foray into quartet writing has been rare, or even non-existent. Amongst this group are Elgar, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and the prolific Havergal Brian, but there are other composers whose contributions to the quartet medium are more numerous, and thereby possibly more significant, than their symphonic concert works – in particular, Schoenberg, Bartσk and Britten.

However, even among those who were masters of both the symphony and the string quartet there are some whose development as quartet-writers did not invariably run alongside their concurrent symphonic mastery. So far as the twentieth century is concerned, the most important such composer is Dmitri Shostakovich who nonetheless, at the time of his death in 1975 at the age of 68, had completed fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets. The equal numbers should not imply an equal concentration throughout his life: by the time he wrote his First Quartet, Opus 49, in 1938, he had already composed five symphonies; but the last thirteen years of his life saw the appearance of just two symphonies, alongside no fewer than six quartets.

It was, therefore, only during the years 1939 to 1962 – a period occupying less than half of Shostakovich's composing career – that his symphonic and chamber works appeared concurrently. These 23 years saw eight symphonies and seven string quartets, during which time he achieved complete mastery as a composer of chamber music, a mastery he had displayed in symphonic writing since 1925.

As the symphony and the string quartet evolved, formally, from the same sources, it may seem odd to say this of Shostakovich, but both forms arose two hundred years or so earlier, and whereas the orchestra had expanded out of virtual recognition from Haydn or even Sammartini, the string quartet remained constant. In addition, the string quartet, as an instrumental group, forms the basis of the symphony orchestra, and whilst there doubtless exist symphonic elements in quartets by composers of all persuasions - three elements, founded upon, in Hans Keller's phrase, 'the large-scale integration of contrasts' (namely themes, keys and statement-and-development), the very nature of the quartet's instrumental make-up, and its historical legacy, have made the twin disciplines of writing symphonies and string quartets by no means complementary or interdependent. The greatest masters of both disciplines have realised the truth of this statement.

Therefore it is quite wrong to consider Shostakovich's string quartets as symphonies in chamber-music guise, and although his delightful First Quartet followed the mighty Fifth Symphony by a year, here is a work utterly conceived for the medium. The First Quartet stands very much apart from its successors in much the same way that Prokofiev's 'Classical' Symphony does from his other six symphonies. It was not until the Second String Quartet, Opus 68, of 1944, that Shostakovich can truly be said to have achieved mastery in quartet composition.

During the six years that separated the First and Second Quartets, Shostakovich wrote two great chamber works – the Piano Quintet (Opus 57), and the Piano Trio in E minor (Opus 67; the Trio was, in fact, his Second; the First, a short, not fully representative very early work, Opus 8, dates from 1923 and was not published until after the composer's death). The Piano Quintet dates from 1940, and was written following a suggestion from the Beethoven String Quartet for a work which they could perform with the composer. It is to this great ensemble that we surely owe Shostakovich's awakening of, and thereafter constant interest in, chamber music. They had given the second performance of the First Quartet in 1938, and gave the first performances of Quartets 2 to 14, as well as of the Piano Quintet and Piano Trio (both with the composer), and gave the second performance, the Moscow premiere, of the final quartet, No 15, in January 1975.

The Second String Quartet was composed in September 1944, less than three weeks after the completion of the Piano Trio to which it appears, emotionally, as the obverse of the same coin. Both were premiered at the same concert on 9 November 1944. The Quartet, whilst containing structural elements such as are found in the Piano Quintet and Piano Trio (notably the recapitulation of themes from earlier movements in the finale), stands entirely on its own as a wholly convincing work of art.

It begins with a magnificent, almost theatrical, gesture – an affirmative theme on first violin, triumphantly in A major, with bare fifths and fourths underlining the tonality. The theme is repeated by the cello, as in E major, but if there seems something almost neo-classical about this opening (hence the movement's title 'Overture', perhaps), it is soon undermined by a darkening of key and irregularly shortened bar-lengths. The semitonal second subject, barely holding on to the dominant as it passes across distant tonalities, is more repetitiously nervous and uncertain, leading to the (very exceptional, but also used in the Ninth Symphony) exposition double-bar and repeat.

The development is both extensive and masterly. The first subject is sung as a waltz-tune in a kind of C minor, with gentle pizzicato accompaniment, echoed (as in the exposition) by the cello, and the second subject, also in C minor, is developed by the viola. The previously barely-referred-to gruppetto which ended the first subject and the rhythmic ictus which characterised the second now take centre stage. The music is carried into fearful uncharted territories as the impetus remains fast and the dynamic rarely falls below forte, until a sudden, deathly E flat minor chord – the farthest possible key from A major – slides the second subject's semitonality upwards, until A major is reached, the movement's material now recapitulated in reverse order and shortened form. The first subject appears to end the movement, but is interrupted by a final defiant reference to the second before an astonishing, classical perfect cadence peremptorily closes the discussion.

The second movement, 'Recitative and Romance', is enveloped by two long declamatory un-barred solos for first violin, accompanied by long-held lower chords; the effect is no-wise predictable, at times recalling Orthodox Church music, Middle Eastern incantations, the Gesangszene of Louis Spohr and J S Bach – but always remaining spiritually expressive. If, structurally, this also anticipates the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, it surely is a glimpse into the more private world of the composer, which surfaced directly in the works of his final decade. The 'Romance', in a slow 3/4, brings no new material to the work, for it is based almost entirely on the material of the first movement, now changed virtually beyond recognition and developed along quite different lines and moving to an impressive climax. The shortened return of the Recitative closes with clear references to the first movement's subjects before the final simple B flat major.

Connected thematically as they are, the nature of each of the first two movements is introductory, a characteristic which is carried over into the third movement, 'Waltz'. Here we encounter one of the most amazing movements in Shostakovich's music up to that time, a movement so subtle in its construction and breathtaking in its achievement. Naturally in 3/4 (almost) throughout, the triple time which has characterised the first two movements is carried forward, but the tonality and timbre are vastly different. It is in E flat minor, the tonal opposite from the first movement, and of which B flat (which ended the second) is the dominant. The four instruments are muted throughout, even when marked fff thus giving an astonishingly ghostly, almost glassy, feel to the music. Finally, the waltz-theme itself is based on the destabilising second subject of the first movement. As this unique movement comes to its close on a ppp E flat minor chord, the air is full of mystery.

Shostakovich has here presented himself with an extraordinary compositional problem – which he solves with genius. The formal devices which he has used in the Quartet up to now demand a resolution in semi-classical structure; the tonality should return to A, but it is unlikely, in view of what has occurred, to be A major. Therefore, a semi-classical return to A minor is the tonal solution. But the material of the Quartet demands both a return that embraces triple time and a solution that combines elements of both subjects from the first movement. Quite apart from anything else, this has to make sense as music, and the implication is a finale which carries the psychologically penetrating emotional weight of the entire work.

The result is a 'Theme and Variations', prefaced by an introduction taking E flat minor as its starting point in powerful octaves on second violin, viola and cello, akin to the opening statement of the Quartet and answered by first violin unaccompanied, thematically musing over the Waltz theme at infinitely slower tempo, but texturally recalling the Recitative and Romance. The new element is a 4/4 pulse, in which, Moderato con moto, the viola, unaccompanied, has a folk-like theme in A minor with a single 3/2 bar for variety, but which theme actually includes the movement's introductory octave idea. Gradually, the variations follow, almost as in classical precedent: second violin, first violin and cello add to the texture, but A minor is not relinquished, until the astonishing thematic unity of this work is revealed when pianissimo triplets urge the music faster. Now the second group of variations unfolds, set in motion in 3/4 by the cello. They gather, ever more brilliantly in character, as the music, expanding with genuine energy, embraces both duple and triple time with cumulative power. An attempt to drag the music back to E flat minor fails as the springboard which launched the finale is brought into play again; a minor third higher, in F sharp minor, heralds a new variation, and another one, to A minor, into which deep tonal region the Quartet now moves, secure in its final symphonic integration of all of this undoubted masterpiece's large-scale contrasts.

Having achieved a unique mastery of quartet-writing in No 2, by 1946 Shostakovich tackled the medium again. Also by this time, he had successfully tackled a formal challenge which had long fascinated Beethoven – the joining-together of movements of different character, yet done in such a way as to make their continuation both seamless and inevitable. Shostakovich had done this in the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, as well as in the Piano Quintet and Piano Trio, but had not thus far attempted it in quartet writing. The Quartet No 3, which is in some respects superficially akin to the Ninth Symphony, revealed new facets of this great composer's compositional mastery, and plumbed considerable depths for Shostakovich than before in this medium.

The work is ostensibly in five movements and begins, somewhat light-heartedly, in a clear F major, Allegretto, with an innocent-sounding theme. The second subject, in C, is rhythmically first cousin to that in the Ninth Symphony, and with the double bar and repeat (as in the Second Quartet and Ninth Symphony) the listener may be forgiven for imagining that Shostakovich has here embarked upon another friendly neo-classical piece. If he has, he does not continue it, at least in terms of sonata structure, for the development is nothing less than a double fugue and the recapitulation strains to keep on track – the second subject hinting at B minor (!) and the coda finally getting us back on track with a pizzicato perfect cadence. The second movement, Moderato con moto, is like a slower, troubled reminiscence of the Scherzo in the Eighth Symphony at first, the viola ostinato heralding bitter music – strongly dissonant, the freely contrapuntal nature producing a deep unease almost throughout the movement – not always violent, but full of foreboding. The tonality is E minor – so near and yet so far from the clear F major which began the work.

Aggression is the emotion of the gripping third movement, a mixture of Scherzo and March, 3/4 and 2/4 alternating almost at every bar in a bitter G sharp minor, looking forward, surely, to the eruptive second movement in the Tenth Symphony. The tonality switches to a kind of E flat major for what must pass as the Trio section, dominated first by the viola, before the opening bursts through the fabric to end the movement with a fierce challenge.

The fourth movement, an extended Passacaglia – a form in which Shostakovich had already proved himself an expert – anticipates a movement in another masterpiece, the Violin Concerto No 1 of 1947/8, but here it is rather freer, and therefore more personal and expressive. Beginning fortissimo, it tends to fall in dynamic, and in tonality, becoming almost bereft of energy until the finale enters, faster of course but very quietly and simply, a little uncertain at first, but growing in confidence until the music sings more lyrically, with F major more or less firmly established.

But it is not so easily achieved. As a climax builds, the theme from the Passacaglia strides across the texture, and then fades over a single repeated E from the cello. Was it all, tonally, in vain? No, for Shostakovich reaches his goal by making E the dominant of A minor, in turn the mediant of F major. By this un-classical, yet infinitely logical and moving progression, Shostakovich has revealed a profound musical truth; the pizzicatos which ended the first movement now bringing a deep pacification to the music which had earlier so troubled us.

It is sometimes claimed, not always convincingly, that there is often a hidden meaning in Shostakovich's work. Whilst the character of his instrumental art frequently exhibits great drama, his mastery of composition is such that his music has, in the last analysis, to stand or fall solely as music, and not through the imposition of some extra-musical programme. With regard to his Third String Quartet, however, the Borodin Quartet, one of the leading Soviet ensembles of their day, established in 1946, insisted upon the following subtitles being appended to the movements in every programme whenever they performed this work. Whilst they have never been published in any edition of the music, the Borodin Quartet clearly felt they had the composer's approval, and the subtitles fit the nature of the music:

I: 'Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm'
II: 'Rumblings of unrest and anticipation'
III: 'The forces of war unleashed'
IV: 'Homage to the dead'
V: 'The eternal question: Why? And for what?'

If indeed these are Shostakovich's original thoughts, then they assist in understanding the character of the work more, but what cannot be denied is that, in his Second and Third String Quartets, Dmitri Shostakovich declared himself to be one of the greatest quartet writers of the century, and continued as such in his successive masterpieces in the genre.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1999

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