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Hyperion Records

CDA67154 - Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 4, 6 & 8
CDA67154

Recording details: April 1999
St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
Produced by Alexander Gerutsky
Engineered by Gerhard Tses
Release date: January 2000
Total duration: 69 minutes 38 seconds

'The St Petersburg turns in a performance of winning directness full of colour and contrast' (Gramophone)

'The virtues in the St Petersburg Quartet's Shostakovich are as evident here as in the first volume of their complete cycle. Once again it's not so much the technical excellence of their full-blooded playing that really strikes home as their ability to project the subtext that lies beneath the notes. Its performance is full of revelatory nuances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The players respond with performances of total concentration, thoughtful refinement and rapt intensity, making their readings very special indeed' (The Scotsman)

'These are among the great interpretations that have been placed on disc' (Fanfare, USA)

String Quartets Nos 4, 6 & 8
Allegretto  [3'47]
Andantino  [6'16]
Allegretto  [4'02]
Allegretto  [10'22]
Allegretto  [6'43]
Lento  [4'55]
Largo  [4'38]
Allegro molto  [2'36]
Allegretto  [4'37]
Largo  [4'46]
Largo  [3'38]

After the St Petersburg Quartet's 'dazzling debut' on Hyperion with String Quartets 2 and 3 (CDA67153), this CD brings three further compelling recordings of the Shostakovich Quartets.

Quartet No 4 was written at a time when leading Soviet composers were having their music publicly denigrated for failing to appeal to 'the people'. Despite this condemnation, Shostakovich persevered with his composing and just delayed the premier until four years later. Whatever Shostakovich feared to express publicly at this time (1949), by 1956, the year of his Sixth Quartet, the political and cultural climate had improved. The works Shostakovich released following Stalin's death—the Fourth and Fifth Quartets, Violin Concerto, Tenth Symphony and Festive Overture—had altered the international perception of his art considerably.

1956 was the year of Shostakovich's fiftieth birthday, and the Sixth Quartet was written for a commemorative concert by the Beethoven Quartet. The event was, naturally, to be a pleasant one, and the music reflects, at least on the surface, the happiness as may be felt on such an occasion. Beneath the surface, however, we discern one of this composer's greatest and most original masterpieces.

In July 1960, Shostakovich was in Dresden, in the then German Democratic Republic, writing the music for a film, Five Days, Five Nights. This was the first time Shostakovich had seen the remains of the city's bombardment, and the experience directly inspired his Eighth String Quartet, Op 110, which was written in just three days, July 12 to 14.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
From time to time during Shostakovich’s life, the totalitarian Communist rule in Russia impinged directly upon his work, and whilst his chamber and solo instrumental music tended to remain free from such domination, there were periods when the general direction of his art seemed to reflect the official line. It is but one example of his genius, however, that in such circumstances he would remain true to himself, even turning the diktats to his own creative account. Soon after the end of World War II, Stalin—absolute dictator of Soviet Russia—began to impose Communist Party rule on those East European countries which came under Soviet influence. At the same time he tightened the Party’s grip on life within Russia, including the arts. Stalin chose Marshal Zhdanov, a famous war-time soldier, to outline the Party demands, which were founded upon fomenting hatred of bourgeois western social-democracy. The Party’s belief that art should not be elitist was deeply held: Russian poetry, novels, drama, ballet, opera, concert music, painting, sculpture and architecture—arts of the not-so-recent past—were understood at varying levels throughout society. Why should modern Soviet arts not enjoy such appeal?

In September 1946, Marshal Zhdanov censured two of the best living Russian writers—Zoschenko and Anna Akhmatova. He then attacked modern Russian film and drama and some months later criticised G F Alexandrov, whose History of Western Philosophy was much admired. A consequence of Zhdanov’s attacks on literature was that a novel by Alexander Fadeyev, The Young Guard, was singled out for praise. Fadeyev’s writing is sentimental and rather poor, but the novel’s final chapters do have a moving cumulative power. Two million copies were sold within six months. Given the situation, the Moscow Gorky Film Studios soon reworked The Young Guard into a three-hour-plus epic. Luckily, at that time, the studios asked Shostakovich to write the music.

The luck was that Shostakovich had recently completed a patriotic cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Poem of the Motherland, utilising folk music and revolutionary songs, and written to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution. He therefore had been working on music of wide appeal, continuing in similar vein in The Young Guard, and following it with another semi-patriotic film score, Pirogov, about a famous surgeon, which included a waltz that became very popular. For reasons which soon became clear, Poem of the Motherland was not performed.

An important premiere of Prokofiev was cancelled at the last minute, without explanation. Clearly, something was up, and the composers did not have to wait long for an explanation. With breathtaking ferocity, the Central Committee’s Decree on Music was published on 10 February 1948. Leading Soviet composers were humiliated, their work publicly torn to shreds for failing to appeal to ‘the people’. Shostakovich, however, had been there before, the situation recalling for him circumstances in 1936 when he diplomatically withdrew from rehearsal his Fourth Symphony at a time when his music came under considerable official displeasure. In February 1948 Shostakovich was working on a Violin Concerto, Op 77, which he had begun the previous July. The Decree, and the consequential condemnation of music previously considered as shining examples of Soviet art, did not prevent Shostakovich from completing the Concerto in March, but the purge prevented him from releasing it to the public until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death.

String Quartet No 4 in D major Op 83
A similar fate befell other works of Shostakovich, including the Fourth String Quartet, Op 83, composed between April and December 1949, but not premiered until four years later. His initial response to the Zhdanov decree, so far as his public concert music was concerned, was the populist oratorio The Song of the Forests, Op 81, which was written in Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland in 1949. The composition of the Fourth Quartet overlapped that of the oratorio, and the first movement’s opening folk-like theme suggests Sibelius or Nielsen, as if we were in the open fields in Scandinavian mid-summer.

This theme is given to the first violin, with gentle counterpoint on the second over an immense pedal D on viola and cello sustained for more than sixty bars. The theme meanders through D major and minor modes, expanding gloriously in a superb developmental restatement before the pulse changes to 3/4 and the key to B minor for a new theme—not unrelated to the first—now developed over another long pedal, this time on E. As this ends, the tonality falls, little by little, until the D pedal is reached again; but the music seems unable to regain its original freshness, and the movement is over.

The second movement, ‘Andantino’, sustains the folk-like atmosphere with a theme in F minor on first violin, accompanied by second violin and viola. This trio texture is sustained for over thirty bars, so when at last the cello enters, restating the theme, F minor is firmly established, and in this rich key the music flowers impressively, the melodic development coming at precisely the right psychological moment. The return of the elegiac first theme, con sordino, is particularly beautiful, the restoration of the trio-texture being notably apt. The long coda reveals fresh aspects of the theme, with all instruments muted, and cross-thematically quoting from the first movement.

The third movement, ‘Allegretto’, a delicate scherzando, is subtly related to the preceding movements in timbre—the mutes remain throughout—and in tonal inflexion, for the cello theme in C minor leans to D, the supertonic, the now distant region from which the work originally began. First violin tries to restore C minor by repeating the theme a seventh higher, but the cello’s fluctuations veer the key towards A major by way of a typical Shostakovich dactylic figure. The cello restores both theme and C minor—in a shape recalled in the finale of the Tenth Symphony—with which the dactylic figure is combined, before the music peters out, the viola taking centre stage to usher in the finale.

Up to now, on the surface the Quartet has behaved in a relatively straightforward manner, but behind the façade have been a number of factors—the uncertain mode of the ‘home’ tonality, a textural ebb and flow, recessed timbres, and a fluid thematicism—which, one by one, are now brought literally into play in the finale and which, implying more extended and wide-ranging treatment than hitherto, place the emphasis of the Quartet on to the finale.

Shostakovich’s resolution of these factors is particularly artful and logical, but achieved in such a manner that the work’s character is unchanged—the music speaks directly to us, with clarity, until finally the folk elements, over deep pedal points, bring this original and fascinatingly subtle work to its miraculous conclusion.

String Quartet No 6 in G major Op 101
Whatever Shostakovich feared to express publicly in 1949, by 1956, the year of his Sixth Quartet, the political and cultural climate had improved. The works Shostakovich released following Stalin’s death—the Fourth and Fifth Quartets, Violin Concerto, Tenth Symphony and Festive Overture—had altered the international perception of his art considerably.

1956 was the year of Shostakovich’s fiftieth birthday, and the Sixth Quartet was written for a commemorative concert by the Beethoven Quartet. The event was, naturally, to be a pleasant one, and the music reflects, at least on the surface, the happiness as may be felt on such an occasion. Beneath the surface, however, we discern one of this composer’s greatest and most original masterpieces.

At heart, the music is concerned with relationships between the home key, G major, and those adjacent to it in pitch: A flat and G flat, their modes and relative minors, to which the first subject—entering at once in a sunny G major—gently alludes. The second subject in D is also simply presented, with an iambic cadence, occasionally lengthened, but already Shostakovich has given subtle glimpses of adjacent moods, in a brief cello phrase, underlying the side-steps, and an anagram of DSCH in the genial first subject—not unlike that which began the Fourth Quartet.

This material is treated urbanely, discursively, but, in exploring aspects of it, the music moves easily through those adjacent keys, giving the movement an extraordinarily fluid feeling, exceptional in Shostakovich’s music. At the end, it is the brief cello phrase that, slightly extended, brings the movement to its tonal home.

The second movement, ‘Moderato con moto’ in E flat and 3/4, opens with a sturdy theme on first violin, largely in crotchets, which initially behaves as though it is a passacaglia in the treble, but even as this is implied the accompanying viola and cello line, in octaves, subtly changes the harmonic emphasis. Viola and cello have a flowing secondary theme, also in octaves, before the first theme returns, harmonised on violins and viola, leading to a high F sharp (G flat). This ushers in a central section in B minor, dominated by a chromatic first violin theme, initially contrasted with earlier material but not unrelated to it. A recapitulation has the violin’s first theme on cello, pizzicato, gradually combined with the chromatic theme. The result dissipates the movement’s energy until vague remembrances are heard under the highest B flat on first violin. The movement ends with the cello’s phrase, now but an outline, reminiscenza, in a rather uncertain E flat.

The uncertainty is that the cello phrase implied the minor mode, and the third movement brings the passacaglia itself—hinted at the opening of the second movement—in B flat minor. The cello has a solemn ten-bar theme; as the other instruments enter, the music maintains the contemplative mood, emotionally stable and barely rising above pianissimo. The closing bars bring the cello phrase again, rather foreign in this context, but opening a curtain, as it were, on the finale and revealing the warmth of G major—as if it had been there all along, hidden from our perception.

First violin, unaccompanied, surveys the scene and, with an anagram of the Quartet’s opening theme, begins a sonata rondo with viola and cello. The second subject—paralleling the first movement tonalities—is in F sharp minor on all four instruments. Reminiscences—not quotations—of the first movement pass by as rondo episodes until the music, all passion spent, and embracing adjacent tonalities as neighbours rather than enemies, quietly ends with a final reprise of the cello cadence in a simple G major.

String Quartet No 8 in C minor Op 110
Having, as it were, composed a string quartet as a fiftieth birthday present for himself, Shostakovich’s next work was an eighteenth birthday present for his son, Maxim—the Second Piano Concerto. In July 1960, Shostakovich was in Dresden, in the then German Democratic Republic, writing the music for a film, Five Days, Five Nights. This was the first time Shostakovich had seen the remains of the city’s bombardment, and the experience directly inspired his Eighth String Quartet, Op 110, which was written in just three days, July 12 to 14. The film score contains an extended section, ‘Dresden in Ruins’, incorporated into the symphonic suite Op 111, which looks forward to the composer’s next work, the Symphony No 12, as well as reflecting the concurrent Eighth Quartet. The film music also quotes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and although Shostakovich’s music frequently employs self-quotation (an aspect of his lifelong ‘cross-thematicism’ as it should more properly be termed, for it is far more than mere collage), in the Eighth Quartet he raised this to a previously unencountered degree. The result is a powerful, emotionally direct score almost literally shot through with self-quotation, yet which paradoxically exhibits an extraordinary motivic unity.

The emotion is almost too direct. We know that in his dedication of the score to the ‘memory of the victims of fascism and war’, Shostakovich included himself as a victim, and that, regarding this as his last work, he planned to commit suicide after being forced to join the Communist Party. The extensive self-quotation in the Eighth Quartet is thereby explained, as is the directness of the emotional content, but such was the composer’s inherent creative genius that all of these myriad elements are combined with extraordinary thematic integration and cohesion.

This unity is derived from the opening four-note cell, DSCH (the composer’s own thematic monogram in German—D, E flat, C, B) occasionally encountered in his post-war music, but never more so than here. The quartet also quotes from his First, Fourth, Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies, the Piano Trio No 2, the First Cello Concerto, the banned opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and a song well-known in Russia, Exhausted by the hardships of prison. After the quartet was composed, and after overcoming his suicidal mood, Shostakovich began revising the opera as Katerina Ismailova, Op 114. The quartet’s underlying tonal scheme, as so often with this composer, echoes the work’s emotionally direct thematicism; in terms of broad outlines, the first movement is in C minor, the second—diametrically opposed—is in G sharp minor; the tonality falls semitonally to G minor for the third movement, and the fourth is likewise diametrically opposed, in C sharp minor. This falls, semitonally, to the C minor of the opening tonality to conclude the work.

The first movement begins with the DSCH motif, in the cello. The quartet is, clearly, to be a personal statement by the composer. The motif unfolds as a slow canonic exposition before three further ideas follow: the (very slow) quotation of the opening of the First Symphony, a descending chromatic scale over a long-held pedal bare fifth, and a theme akin to the second subject of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement. This material is counter-stated, but in reverse order, before—attacca—the fierce second movement, ‘Allegro molto’, shatters the fabric of the music.

This dramatic movement is propelled by a driving, impatient rhythm taken from the ‘Fifth Symphony’ theme and combined with DSCH in octave canon. The drive and impetus of the music is incessant, increasing in intensity until a great climax brings the wry ‘Piano Trio’ theme, now fff, and the material is recapitulated, the registers altered, and building to a considerable climax. This is suddenly severed and succeeded by a sardonic waltz structure, introduced by DSCH high on the first violin.

This waltz has an obsessed, hauntingly troubled nature, stemming from DSCH and the descending chromatic scale; the movement’s second main theme is passionate and vibrant, and, suddenly, the pulse becomes 2/2 with the appearance of the opening theme of the First Cello Concerto—but not on the cello. Almost at once this is gone, and the cello itself now has a high lyrical theme leading to a counterstatement of the material—the cello’s theme replaced by an extended unaccompanied violin line whose drone-like A sharp is sustained against clustered ‘gunfire’ from the lower strings. This is in fact the ‘Cello Concerto’ theme in massive augmentation, which leads to a deeply moving stream of music created from fragments of (among others) the Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies, DSCH, the revolutionary song and Lady Macbeth. The first violin, which began the movement, closes it with a new statement of the ever-present, all-observing, DSCH motif, expanding in slow fugal texture more fully worked than in the first movement, principally owing to a berceuse-like countersubject in the major, and which, as it progresses, slowly winds the music down to the C minor of DSCH, and thus finally lays this deeply disturbing score to rest.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000


Other albums in this series
'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 2 & 3' (CDA67153)
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 2 & 3
'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9' (CDA67155)
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9
'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14' (CDA67156)
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14
'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 11, 13 & 15' (CDA67157)
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 11, 13 & 15
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'Shostakovich: Quartet No. 1, Quintet & Trio No. 2' (CDA67158)
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 1, Quintet & Trio No. 2
'Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets' (CDS44091/6)
Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets
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