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Hyperion Records

CDA67157 - Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 11, 13 & 15

Recording details: January 2001
St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
Produced by Alexander Gerutsky
Engineered by Gerhard Tses
Release date: August 2002
Total duration: 70 minutes 52 seconds

'The St Petersburg Quartet employs the widest possible range of colour and articulation in its performances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'These are thoughtful and articulate performances … they will substantially increase your appreciation of Shostakovich's craftsmanship' (International Record Review)

'This is a superb disc' (American Record Guide)

'Stunningly characterised' (The Strad)

'These are estimable performances, full of meaningful details and engaging atmosphere … a safe and rewarding continuation of the cycle' (Fanfare, USA)

'The recording is produced to the usual, exceptional Hyperion standards but the playing is something else again. This group obviously has this music in its collective soul and it shows … A superb achievement that makes me want to hear the rest of the cycle as a priority' (MusicWeb International)

String Quartets Nos 11, 13 & 15
Etude: Allegro  [1'19]
Elegy: Adagio  [4'27]
Finale: Moderato  [3'56]
Elegy: Adagio  [10'54]
Serenade: Adagio  [5'38]
Nocturne: Adagio  [4'39]
Epilogue: Adagio  [6'51]

The Eleventh Quartet breaks from the more traditional four-movement structure, and comprises seven separate short movements more comparable with a partita or divertimento. The movements are thematically unified by a sequence of phrases introduced at the beginning of the first movement. The Thirteenth Quartet, on the other hand, forms the only single-movement quartet in Shostakovich's output, and adopts the serial thematicism he introduced to the genre in his previous Twelfth Quartet. It opens with a twelve-note row on unaccompanied viola which is developed melodically and rhythmically throughout the work.

The Fifteenth Quartet was written in 1974, the year before Shostakovich's death. In 1965 he had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and by the time he wrote this, his last quartet, he was very frail. The music seemingly reflects his state of health and mind in that it is a consistently starker, more directly tragic utterance, producing perhaps the most intimate and moving of all his compositions.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
String Quartet No 11 in F minor Op 122
Shostakovich’s Eleventh String Quartet, completed on 30 January 1966, is dedicated to the memory of Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, the original second violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet, who had recently died at the age of 65. The four quartets numbers 11 to 14 are each inscribed to a member of this famous ensemble, so closely associated with these works. The first performance of the Eleventh took place on 25 March 1966 at the Moscow Composers’ Club, played by the Beethoven Quartet, the second violinist being Nikolai Zabavnikov.

From earliest times to the present day the string quartet has lent itself readily to the composition of a work in more than four movements to a degree which only exceptionally rarely applies to symphonic composition; structurally it has more in common with the partita or divertimento. The violin, the instrument of the group dance, the village dance, the formal social event of the ethnic ‘folk’, was also the instrument of the dancing-masters and has always been a melodic instrument. The instrument’s sustaining power means that both very fast and very slow music are ideally suited to it and the other strings; the wide emotional range lends it naturally to multi-movement composition, either as a multi-movement work, or as parts of a one-movement work.

In Shostakovich’s quartets we have noted how he rose to the formidable challenge of such a compositional discipline, and in the Eleventh Quartet links seven separate short movements in a structural homage to the genre’s roots. The link is the emotional plan. In some respects the Eleventh revisits the Tenth: the first violin opens the work with a series of melodically joined rising and falling (yet modally indeterminate) fifths, which finally settle in F minor. This has been described as a ‘motto’ theme, but it is more a sequence of phrases from which the composer takes that which he needs for the following movements. Thus the movements are separate in character but thematically unified. The Scherzo is conjoined, and the first violin opens again, unaccompanied, with another simple dance-like idea, which falls melodically in thirds, punctuated by intermittent rising glissandos (which texturally anticipate parts of the last four quartets).

An ominous low C on the viola leads to the short yet strongly dramatic Recitative, almost as if it were the musical personification of three heart seizures. In the Etude, the first violin and then the cello envelope the movement, against a simple repeated chorale-like figure, a device which is turned on its head in the Humoresque, wherein the second violin repeats just two notes throughout, G and E, regardless of what else is going on. As this peters out, an interval between them, F sharp, becomes—as F sharp minor—the tonal region of the Elegy, the emotional heart of the work. Perhaps significantly, it is the unaccompanied second violin that leads to the finale, outwardly a very simple piece, initially in F minor/major, but focusing as it progresses on the minor mode as the organic material of the work passes by in affectionate reminiscence until the first violin holds the highest possible C, seemingly forever.

String Quartet No 13 in B flat minor Op 138
Having demonstrated his mastery of serial thematicism in his later style of quartet writing in the Twelfth Quartet, Shostakovich returned to the process for his next work in the series, which was composed during the summer of 1970, and completed in hospital in Kurgan (in the Urals) on 10 August. As with the two previous quartets, Shostakovich dedicated the work to another original member of the Beethoven String Quartet, the violist Vadim Borisovsky (1901–1972), who had taken part in the premieres of Shostakovich’s quartets 2 to 10. He was succeeded by Fyodor Druzhnin, the dedicatee of Shostakovich’s last completed work, the Viola Sonata, Op 147.

The first performance of the Thirteenth Quartet was given by the Beethoven String Quartet on 11 December 1970 at the USSR Composers’ Club in Moscow. Although falling into three broad sections, the work is composed in one movement—the only single-movement quartet in Shostakovich’s output.

The composer’s technical discoveries of the Twelfth Quartet are pursued further in the Thirteenth: the first is the twelve-note opening theme (here on viola), and the second is the structural functions of texture—which had (like the first) been part of Shostakovich’s compositional make-up from his earliest days, but which had assumed greater importance in the music’s foreground in recent years.

There is a third element: the virtually constant underlying pulse, which makes this a genuine one-movement symphonic work. This is not to say that the pulse remains entirely the same throughout; as the work moves to its astonishing coda, the emotional tenor of the music demands, if not forces, the pulse to slacken slightly, yet throughout the main body of the quartet the music always moves to a regular beat.

The Thirteenth Quartet opens with the unaccompanied viola twelve-note row, which possesses greater melodic and rhythmic emphases than that which began No 12. The inherent chromaticism is soon encapsulated into melodic minor seconds—expanded to harmonic minor ninths—when, after the first violin, unaccom­panied, varies the row, the second violin presents the tonal ‘second subject’ in D flat (beginning with figurative repeated notes).

There is an imperceptible change of tempo (doppio movimento) and key (open fifths E–B on E minor, the opposite of B flat minor), and the remarkable central developmental section of the work begins. Here the straining minor ninths, against repeated notes and scraps of themes, become more prominent after a third twelve-note row is heard unaccompanied on the second violin. The texture becomes astonishingly varied and more fantastical as all four instruments—barely discoursing together but acting more as individuals arguing amongst themselves—share an extended passage before the cello rebuilds the tonality and customary quartet texture. Strange pianissimo trills (minor seconds this time) then underpin further repeated notes, pizzicato, on the first violin. The ninths burst out again, and it is the solo viola which begins the argument once more. It feels like a recapitulation of the opening material, but a solo cello ‘cadenza’ (reminiscent of the earlier quartets) and yet another strict twelve-note row from the first violin anchors the music to E major.

The begetter of the quartet, the unaccompanied viola, leads proceedings as the final part of the third section of the work gets under way. The ‘second subject’, on both violins, is recapitulated in B flat minor before the meandering viola ends the quartet in more than thirty bars of solo writing (‘accompanied’ by virtually inaudible ‘belly-taps’ on the second violin—the viola had earlier instigated this tone-colour in the central section). The viola moves ever upwards to the highest possible B flat, where it is joined by the violins in a sudden dramatic crescendo to sffff—and the music is gone.

String Quartet No 15 in E flat minor Op 144
In his final years, the texts that Shostakovich chose to set, from the Fourteenth Symphony (1969) onwards, are preoccupied by death. In 1965 a heart condition was diagnosed; aggravated by his chain-smoking, his health—never robust—began to deteriorate, until in his final years he became very frail. Such matters must have prompted his preoccupation with his own mortality; in any event he turned more and more to the intimate forms of song-cycle and string quartet, and within those works we can discern a consistently starker, more directly tragic utterance than hitherto. Nowhere is this more clearly to be found than in his final string quartet, the Fifteenth, in the darkly morbid key of E flat minor, and in his last completed work, the Viola Sonata, Op 147.

As we have noted in discussions of the earlier works in this cycle, Shostakovich’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire is one of the most important of any twentieth-century composer—not purely in the number of his works but in the range and undeviating quality of them. Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Quartet is one of the most moving of all his compositions, the most intimate, and of his chamber works the most directly concerned—in so far as such a claim can be made—with death. The profound melancholy of this music is akin to a Requiem—but not necessarily for himself, although when the work was written Shostakovich must have known his time on earth was now limited.

The final quartet comprises six linked Adagio movements: Elegy, Serenade, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Funeral March and Epilogue, and was completed on 17 May 1974; the first performance took place the following October, by the Taneyev String Quartet, in Leningrad. The first performance in Moscow was by the Beethoven Quartet, on 11 January 1975.

The first movement is a sombre and stately meditation on two simple ideas, unhurried and peaceful, which anchor the music irreducibly to E flat minor and which recall chants from the Kontakion. The Serenade opens with twelve searing cries, which recur at intervals in the movement, juxtaposed with equally dramatic outbursts of pizzicato chords and a recitative-like line, before an angular little waltz passes by. Over a deep pedal, the extraordinary Intermezzo now appears: a powerfully dramatic solo violin cadenza erupts, interspersed with tutti references to scraps from the Serenade, before the Nocturne emerges. This is a relatively impressionistic movement, characterised by delicate tracery from second violin and cello through which the viola initially weaves an expressive line. This becomes the basis for much of the movement’s development before a simple march rhythm pushes itself forward, taken up by the entire quartet to begin the Funeral March proper, punctuated with solo lines from the viola, cello and first violin.

This material is also varied, but gradually the passion ebbs from it, and the quietly flickering Epilogue ensues, with fluttering lines oscillating within the texture, interspersed with reminiscences from earlier parts of the work. The fluttering lines gather themselves for a final outburst, and then—very gradually, over a long paragraph—the music, drained of almost all of its fragile energy, at last withdraws into a reposeful acceptance of Fate.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 2002

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