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Hyperion Records

CDA67156 - Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14

Recording details: January 2003
St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
Produced by Alexander Gerutsky
Engineered by Gerhard Tses
Release date: April 2003
Total duration: 79 minutes 17 seconds

'Boldly played and recorded … many moments of quiet beauty and acidic intensity' (Gramophone)

'The St Petersburg Quartet consistently score in terms of idiomatic colour and gesture' (International Record Review)

'One of the finest in a fine series' (The Inverness Courier)

String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14
Moderato  [7'12]
Allegretto  [9'09]
Adagio  [10'01]
Allegretto  [9'14]
Andante  [4'19]

This is the penultimate CD in the St Petersburg String Quartet’s complete survey of string quartets by Shostakovich, in a series that has received the highest praise from all over the world.

The 10th quartet was written in the Summer of 1964 whilst the composer was at his summer retreat in Armenia. ‘Folk’ influences are not often found in Shostakovich’s serious work, but it may be that writing the quartet in Armenia had some bearing on the work, for example the hurdy-gurdy dance theme found in the finale. The 12th quartet was composed shortly before Shostakovich wrote his Violin Sonata, Op 134 for David Oistrakh in 1968. Both works provoked a great deal of interest at the time, as they both begin with 12- note themes. Although not strictly adhering to serial procedures, both show a new interest in serial thematicism. The 14th quartet was written between 1972 and 1973 and was preceded by his fifteenth and last symphony which had an underlying ‘programme’ to it, effectively the story of a man’s life—possibly his own. This aspect of reminiscence which was to assume great importance in his later works can also be found in the 14th quartet. The entire material is derived from the first six bars of a quirky, almost childish theme, and the finale quotes from one of his operas, Katarina Ismailova.

To round off the series, the St Petersburg String Quartet are to record the 1st quartet (1938) and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (1940), due for release in 2004.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
As we have seen elsewhere in this series of recordings, Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets comprise three cycles, namely Nos 1-6, 7-9 and 10-15. The three central quartets (Nos 7-9) are unified by musical and supra-musical connections, the latter being that they are all ‘personal’ works. The Ninth, the first of two quartets written in the earlier part of 1964, is dedicated to Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, his third wife, whom he married in 1962. In that work the pull of C minor (the key of the ‘suicidal’ Eighth) against E flat major (the key of the Ninth) is vanquished in the turbulent and exhausting final bars. With the Ninth Quartet Shostakovich’s troubled genius is restated afresh; with the Tenth Quartet in A flat major, Op 118, the third group of his works in this genre began. The key-sequence of these compositions is important, for E flat is the dominant of A flat – and the ‘classical’ association of these keys serves to reinforce the claim that a third series of quartets has begun, as does their close proximity in composition. Shostakovich’s Tenth String Quartet was composed in the summer of 1964, while he was staying at the Dilizhan composer’s retreat in Armenia, almost two months after he had completed its predecessor. The Tenth Quartet is dedicated to the Russian composer Mosei Vainberg and was first performed by the Beethoven Quartet on 20 November 1964 – a programme which also included the premiere of Op 117.

After the struggles which eventually emerge triumphant (without being triumphalist) on tackling the profound inner tensions of the Ninth Quartet, the Tenth appears at first to exude a general surface feeling of relaxation and peace, although this is not wholly sustained without intense invasions, in which the composer’s command of large-scale tonal plans is further demonstrated. The basic ground-plan of the Tenth is relatively easy to grasp. The first movement Andante has no sonata-style ‘development’, for it is in effect a prelude to the second movement, Allegretto furioso, identical in position to the emotional outburst of the second movement of the famous Eighth Quartet. Unlike its predecessor, this fierce and angry movement has no light relief.

The third movement Adagio is cast as a theme and eight variations (with finale) on an irregular cello theme, ff, very strict in structure and thereby permitting its highly creative flights of fancy to be rigorously controlled, before the fourth movement (Allegretto–Andante) breaks in with a gruff little theme on the viola with a typical anapaestic stamp, succeeded by a broad secondary theme, also on the viola. The first theme returns and a third idea appears, leading to an extensive development where the three themes combine. They build to a stunning climax, at the summit of which the themes from the Passacaglia and first movement add to the growing feeling of power. Following this emotional climax the tenor of the music gradually subsides over an extended time-span.

These are the broad features of the work, but we should note the following aspects, which are not so readily apparent. One does not often encounter a ‘folk’ influence in Shostakovich’s serious work, but it may be that writing the quartet in Armenia had some bearing on the composition. The Ninth Quartet ended with a vast movement in which adjacent keys (and modes) struggled for supremacy; in the Tenth, the adjacent tonalities are separated by a semitone. They are A flat major, and its flat supertonic, A minor. One should, however, emphasize that – although A flat is the predominant key of the work – these keys are not invariably heard in opposition to one another.

The opening solo violin line (initially made up of a descending semitone, a minor third and a fourth) already, within four notes, encompasses these keys in a sketchy ‘theme’ (possessing an important rhythmic outline) which finally falls to A flat as the other instruments enter. The ‘second subject’, in and around B flat minor, is given to the cello below an incessant viola phrase. A third idea, almost atonal, on solo violin leads to a truncated restatement of the material, before a coda based on the first theme quietly and rather suddenly ends the movement.

The second movement, fulfilling the function of a Scherzo, is a fierce discussion on scraps of themes dominated by falling major and minor seconds; structurally it is merely a statement and counterstatement with coda and contains some of this composer’s most intense and most fully scored writing (for a string quartet). The following Passacaglia initially grows from an A minor chord which underscores the cello’s fundamental theme and at last falls to A flat, whereby it is joined to the finale. After the gruff viola theme, a new folk-like idea in D minor quietly enters. The character of this new idea is akin to an Armenian hurdy-gurdy dance, fully scored in six (sometimes seven) parts. The opening music of the finale is recalled, leading to the powerful outburst in which the work’s entire thematic material is enjoined; as this fades, the ‘Armenian’ theme is heard again, and falls to its opposite tonality, A flat, wherein the quartet fades into silence.

Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, Op 134, written late in 1968 for David Oistrakh, followed soon after the first performance of the String Quartet No 12, which took place on 14 June that year at the Moscow Composers’ Club by the faithful Beethoven String Quartet. Great interest was aroused by these adjacent works, for they both begin with twelve-note themes. Many commentators regarded the composer’s use of serial-thematicism in these works as signifying a definite, if slight, change of direction for him.

In fact it was nothing of the sort, for tendencies towards what might be termed serial-thematicism – the use of note rows as themes in themselves, with the occasional ‘missing’ notes from the series providing clues to the underlying tonal bases of the works in question (rather than being wholly serial, ‘through-composed’ works in accordance with strict serial procedures) – run through Shostakovich’s work from the First Symphony to the Fifteenth Quartet.

Indeed, if we consider the initial bars of the two preceding quartets, both of which begin with an unaccompanied (first violin) line of notably chromatic inflection, the fact that No 12 opens with a twelve-note row should not cause surprise. The structure of the work, however, is relatively unusual in that the very much longer second movement appears (in retrospect) to be the main symphonic working of the initial row, and a continuation of much of the material of the (apparently) preludial first movement. The first two movements of the Tenth Quartet look forward to the bipartite Twelfth.

Additionally, in the Ninth Quartet Shostakovich placed the most significant weight on the vast finale. So in various respects he was using in the Twelfth structural devices which he had already employed in earlier works. As in No 9 the reason for the finale’s length is the journey the music undertakes to achieve a tonal synthesis of material which, at the outset, is anything but tonal. We should also consider the suite-like structure of No 11, with its frequent changes of tempo, which are echoed in the last movement of No 12, but which analysis show to be wholly organic, and which pose problems for the ensemble that essays this work. In considering this composition, we cannot be in any doubt that we are in the presence of a great composer.

The Eleventh Quartet was dedicated to the (late) second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet; No 12 is inscribed to Dmitri Tsganov, the ensemble’s first violin, yet the opening twelve-note theme is given not to the violin, but to the cello. Whether we aurally identify this theme as a row or not, the tonal character of it is uncertain. It is one bar, in a moderate 3/2 pulse, and is immediately juxtaposed with a thoroughly tonal (even routine) idea, of adjacent tones and semitones, below a long-drawn-out fragment on first violin. One by one, the other instruments join the discourse, until a sudden change of time signature (to 3/4) and tempo brings a new, faintly waltz-like idea on first violin, underpinned by repeated pizzicato bare fifths of A flat and E flat. At length the fifths rise semitone by semitone, and the twelve-note row is restated on the viola, also a semitone higher. The music gradually expands in texture, but not by much in volume, oscillating this way and that until a longer solo counter-melody on the viola, above a cello reminiscence of the opening, lands the music on D flat.

The vast second movement, Allegretto, opens with a dramatic, fragmented gesture which falls to F sharp: was the D flat at the end of the first movement merely the enharmonic dominant of F sharp? The conundrum Shostakovich has set himself demands a lengthy solution. The fragments build to an extraordinary, symphonic edifice in ten broad sections, in which – as we might expect at this stage in the cycle – earlier material is recalled (particularly the twelve-note row) and refashioned, a powerful demonstration of how this remarkable structure, so typical of this composer’s later style, has grown from the merest fragments to the dynamic and unambiguous D flat major ending.

Shostakovich’s Fourteenth String Quartet, the last of the four consecutive quartets he inscribed to an original member of the Beethoven String Quartet (which were to premiere thirteen of his fifteen quartets, and which gave the second performances of the other two) was mostly written at Repino in the summer and autumn of 1972 and completed in Moscow on 23 April 1973. The first performance took place on 30 October at the Composers’ Club in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet - whose cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, is the work’s dedicatee.

The work is in three movements, the second and third of which run consecutively. While it is possible to see the cello as the main protagonist of the quartet, as the music progresses the texture becomes fully integrated, and there are important solo passages for the first violin and the viola. It was preceded by Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, which saw a return to more classical structural precepts – although the composer’s gift for creating large-scale works from the merest of thematic germs is there shown at its most complete. The symphony, however, has another layer of interest, for Shostakovich admitted that it had an underlying ‘programme’: the story of a man’s life. In effect, it was his own life, but the aspect of reminiscence – which assumed greater importance in his few remaining works and which impinged upon his thinking at that time – can also be found in the Fourteenth Quartet.

This is not to say that this feature, exemplified in self-quotation, is as pervasive as it was in the Eighth Quartet, but it is there to some degree. It would equally be wrong to infer that No 14 is easier to grasp than its immediate predecessors, despite the relative outward simplicity of structure and melodic appeal which it undoubtedly possesses, for beneath the surface – especially in the finale – there are, as we might expect with this composer, more subtle processes at work.

The entire material for the Fourteenth is derived from the first six bars: a repeated F sharp on the viola, above a quirky, almost childish, theme on the cello. The working of these ideas is not difficult to follow, although we may at first miss the implications of the rather odd preparation for the second group of themes – first, again on the cello, and secondly, a continuation on the first violin (as a third idea). What might pass for the development is concerned with four ‘workings’ of this material – as duos, trios and textural ‘spatial’ effects, ending on a high C sharp before a viola recitative heralds a truncated recapitulation, almost in the ‘wrong’ key. The cello then has a longer recitative, joined by the viola and second violin in continuing the reminiscence of the first idea; the movement peters out in F sharp.

The second movement, Adagio, begins as if it were to be a slow study on an eleven-bar theme in D minor on solo first violin, which contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. A few bars of full texture leads to another unaccompanied first violin idea, now joined by the cello, who takes up the initial theme. In one of Shostakovich’s most remarkable stretches of quartet-writing, a long duo between violin and cello ensues, until both violins, with the viola pizzicato between them, decorate the texture above a long cello line, arco, of great expressiveness. The pizzicato is gradually discarded, and the passage dies away with repeated As on second violin, leading to the final section of the movement, which slowly oscillates between G minor and its leading tonality, F sharp. First violin revives the pizzicato, repeating C sharp (the dominant of the home key), and then the finale is upon us – with a theme taken directly from Shostakovich’s opera Katerina Ismailova, the second version of the opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk (then still banned in Russia).

The text is ‘Serezha, my dear! my dear!’, no doubt a reference to the cellist; the finale is in two main halves, both devoted to full (yet very different) development of this material, with earlier themes from the quartet (and elsewhere) moulded into a fast and almost explosively powerful outpouring, followed by a gradual lightening of texture and slowing of tempo: a far more lyrical treatment of the ideas, with the cello fascinatingly scored so as to be heard above the other instruments, quietly brings the Quartet to a close in F sharp major.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 2003

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