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Hyperion Records

CDA67155 - Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9
CDA67155
Recording details: December 2000
St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
Produced by Alexander Gerutsky
Engineered by Gerhard Tses
Release date: April 2001
Total duration: 72 minutes 35 seconds

Chamber Music America-WQXR Award for Best Chamber CD of 2001

'Playing of a technical command that invites comparison with the best available' (Gramophone)

'These are among the great interpretations that have been placed on disc … I do believe that this cycle could grow to some of the most impressive Shostakovich performances ever placed on disc' (Fanfare, USA)

‘An extremely well-balanced and -matched ensemble, giving highly energised and committed performances. This recording seems to have found the ideal balance between youthful vigour and adult refinement. The tone is warm and the recording sumptuous. The disc is very highly recommended’ (Music Teacher)

'An emotional intensity which leaves little doubt that it meant a great deal to the composer – and to these prize-winning Russian players' (Liverpool Evening News)

String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9
Allegro non troppo  [11'55]
Andante  [9'12]
Allegretto  [3'18]
Lento  [4'05]
Allegro  [5'56]
Adagio  [4'22]
Allegretto  [4'05]
Adagio  [4'01]
Allegro  [10'06]

Shostakovich's 15 string quartets represent one of the 20th century's most profound statements in chamber music. As he grew older, Shostakovich's focus shifted increasingly towards the chamber medium, and the Quartets contain some of his most personal and poignant musical utterances.

Here the St Petersburg String Quartet add to their highly successful series of quartets by Shostakovich with three more compelling recordings, this time Nos 5, 7 and 9.

Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Quartet in 1952 and is his greatest string quartet up to that time—a masterpiece which he never surpassed and rarely equalled for its consummate symphonic integration. It was the first quartet to have a direct connection with one of his symphonies, in this case the Tenth. The Seventh Quartet was completed in March 1960. It is the shortest of the series and explores aspects of quartet-writing not encountered in other of his works, at least up to that time. It is dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Nina, who had died in 1954. The work moves between passion and tension and draws largely on fugal writing to make the distinctions apparent. The Ninth Quartet is another personal work, dedicated to Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, his third wife whom he married in 1962.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
No matter how Shostakovich chose to clothe his works, on one level his music always speaks directly to his audience. Occasionally he will touch raw emotional nerves, or juxtapose seemingly irreconcilable material for dramatic effect, or—like any great creative artist—take us on a journey so fascinating and unique that we willingly follow him. Even when his music poses problems for us, the intensity of his expression at such moments never alienates the listener.

Underlying the emotional expressiveness of Shostakovich’s music is the great and profound art by which it is communicated, a technical mastery complete and without peer in the twentieth century, and possessing a fundamental originality that, even a quarter of a century after his death, is barely recognised. If some composers have suffered from neglect, others, like Shostakovich, have suffered from too great an exposure. Our exposure to his work has often led to an assumption that, because we have been familiar with this music since it first appeared, through frequent performances, recordings and broadcasts, articles, books and programme notes, we know all about it.

By the time of Shostakovich’s Quartet No 5 (1952), the composer had demonstrated his mastery in the medium through his Quartets Nos 2, 3 & 4 (1944–1948), but by then several significant events had occurred to change both his view of the world and his compositional approach. The Second World War, the imposition of Communist rule across post-war Eastern Europe and the dictatorial regime of Stalin had impinged upon the lives of all in their paths; and the notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948 had publicly upbraided Shostakovich, along with every other leading Soviet composer, virtually forcing him to withhold a number of works until the political climate had changed, which it did after Stalin’s death in March 1953.

The years 1948 to 1953 were not wasted by Shostakovich. Apart from the works which he composed, as it were in secret, his visit to Leipzig in 1950 to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of J S Bach led directly to one of the most pivotal works in his output—the 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano Opus 87 (1950/51)—in which his contrapuntal skills were defined as never before. It was perhaps only to be expected that his first major instrumental work since completing Opus 87 would display elements of his redefined contrapuntal mastery, and in the Fifth Quartet such characteristics can indeed be found, but not to the exclusion of others, equally typical and equally indicative of his creative abilities.

String Quartet No 5 in B flat major Op 92
For some commentators the Fifth is Shostakovich’s greatest string quartet up to that time—a masterpiece which he never surpassed and rarely equalled for its consummate symphonic integration, and a work that manifestly led directly to Symphony No 10, which it anticipates in thematic unity and the assimilation of the composer’s thematic monogram DSCH—rather more wholly unified here than in the symphony. We also find the Tenth Symphony quotes directly from the quartet, whose emotional power is such that on occasion it seems to burst the confines of the four players to demand a fuller, orchestral texture. In one respect, the Fifth Quartet’s symphonism is more fully integrated: the resolution of duple and triple time, which juxtaposition sets up an additional stratum of tension which is only synthesized in the final bars.

Despite such overtly and covertly symphonic elements, the Fifth Quartet is arguably Shostakovich’s most private chamber work, stemming from the concentrated development of its motivic, even cellular, intense thematicism. This is reinforced by the work’s three movements’, although distinct, being joined together—not merely played attacca—in the manner of some of Shostakovich’s later works. In this aspect we find the complete integration of the composition, a fulfilment of the joining of movements in his earlier quartets. Finally, the structure of the quartet’s first movement adheres to classical precedent in having an exposition double bar and repeat, as in the Second and Third Quartets.

The first two bars constitute the motto for the entire composition, dominated in the second bar by the viola ‘theme’ (itself derived from DSCH) and, naturally, containing within it the three intervals from which the work grows: ascending minor second, major second, and minor third. Indeed, it can justly be claimed that the quartet grows wholly from the interval of a second. What might be termed a bridge is wholly developmental, bringing in its wake fragments of new material before the second subject, in complete contrast to the first, enters. This is a simple diatonic theme in G major, but in 3/4 time, its diatonicism based on the interval of a third. Such disparate material implies a lengthy movement, and the music embarks upon an absorbing discussion, full of cross-rhythms and cross-tonalities, alongside attempts to achieve a synthesis between such disparate ideas. The synthesis is achieved through the interval of a third before a high F natural on first violin joins the second movement to the first; in this movement, based eventually upon D, the lyrical aspects of the material are more fully explored—for the ideas are but transformations of those from the first movement. The instruments are muted throughout, and the texture alternates between trio- and quartet-writing. But even when four instruments are used, Shostakovich is not above creating the illusion of a fifth, with the cello arco and pizzicato at the same time. Once more the differentiation of duple and triple time adds an underlying oscillation to the basic pulse.

As before, the second movement and finale are joined, this time by a D–F sharp third, and the finale begins ‘Moderato’, with the second violin musing over aspects of the basic material, in 2/4, leading to 3/4 when a gentle dance begins. The dance grows in intensity before subsiding as a final reconciliation of the disparate elements, now transformed into a folk-like theme. This masterpiece ends quietly, gently musing over the fertile intervals which began it.

String Quartet No 7 in F sharp minor Op 108
Shostakovich’s Seventh Quartet was completed in March 1960. It is the shortest of the series but is no less significant for that. In many ways it explores aspects of quartet-writing not encountered in other of his works, at least up to that time. Ostensibly in three movements, which are played attacca, in practice it comes across as a four-movement structure, for the finale is very much in two parts. The work is dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Nina, who had died in 1954, and who, had she lived, would have celebrated her fiftieth birthday in 1960.

The quartet opens with a chromatic descending idea on first violin, answered by three repeated quavers, firmly anchoring the tonality to F sharp minor. A secondary rising theme—also in quavers—over a low C leads to the second subject proper in E flat minor, on the cello. This is combined with the secondary theme, and a developmental codetta leads to an extraordinary counter-statement of the preceding material. The tempo changes to 3/8, the quavers remaining even, and the timbre to pizzicato, as the tonality returns to F sharp minor. The second subject is restated more or less regularly in F sharp, and the earlier repeated quavers in a gentle coda quietly bring the movement to its close.

The second violin begins the central Lento with an accompanimental figure spread across the four strings, over which first violin sings a long-breathed theme clearly derived in part from the opening idea of the quartet. The instruments are muted throughout and when the viola and cello enter, in bare fifths, they bring the first glissando in any Shostakovich quartet. First cello, then viola, and finally both in octaves, continue the violin theme—second violin accompanies virtually throughout the movement—which is taken up by first violin again, over an eventual low D pedal, to the end, but not before a falling viola phrase—A, G sharp, F sharp, E sharp (i.e. F natural)—is heard. At once the finale burst upon us, the quartet’s opening anapæstic rhythm extended but at once silenced by the viola’s four-note phrase (the significance of which remains unclear) as the movement immediately hurtles on its breathless way. In its rush, themes from the second movement are recalled—almost grabbed at—before the quartet’s opening idea is given out, a third higher, by all four instruments in octaves, fff.

The recall of first-movement material brings proceedings almost to a halt, and then the second major part of the finale, in effect a fourth movement—not unlike a gentle ghostly waltz—begins. As it proceeds it recalls aspects of the first movement’s counter-statement before recapitulating, in essence, the gentle coda from that movement, now shown to be a coda to the entire composition.

String Quartet No 9 in E flat major Op 117
Shostakovich’s quartets comprise three cycles: 1–6, 7–9 and 10–15. The three central quartets (7, 8 and 9) are unified by musical and supra-musical connexions, the latter being that they are each ‘personal’ works. No 7, as we noted, is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s first wife; No 8—shot through as never before with Shostakovich’s thematic monogram, DSCH, and much self-quotation—is, in a very real sense, the personification of the composer himself in music, following the composition of which, as we now know, he intended to commit suicide. Quartet No 9, the first of two written in the early part of 1964, is dedicated to Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, his third wife whom he married in 1962. With Quartet No 10 the third sequence of his works in this genre began.

The Ninth Quartet is in five movements. A quintuple ground plan was not unique in his output, for three symphonies (8, 9 and 13), the Piano Quintet, and the Third and Eighth Quartets are each in five movements. In the Ninth Quartet the movements follow without a break, and of the earlier five-movement works only the Eighth Quartet is also fully continuous. As we noted above, the Seventh Quartet is also played without breaks between its three movements. Taking Nos 7, 8 and 9 together, we thus have three consecutive quartets which are continuous in performance—the only occasion in any genre in Shostakovich’s output where such a sequence occurs.

Despite these connexions, the Ninth differs in that the greatest weight is thrown on to the last movement. There are other, closer connexions between Nos 8 and 9, notably thematically and rhythmically, which are sometimes combined. Another important point concerns the tonal basis of No 9. In choosing E flat major as the ‘home’ key, which (without going into too great a detail) it would have been difficult for Shostakovich to avoid in this context, E flat is the relative major of C minor, the pervasive tonality of the ‘suicidal’ Eighth, and half-way between the Seventh’s F sharp and the Eighth’s C minor. What is unusual in the Ninth is Shostakovich’s almost psychotic avoidance of C minor in the first four movements. It is as though the E flat of his third wife’s quartet has removed the suicidal tendency implicit in the tonal relationship between the relative keys of E flat major and C minor, until in the finale he confronts the problem head-on.

The quartet opens with a thematic exposition over a long-held octave-pedal E flat on viola and cello, second violin oscillating scalically through a diminished fifth (initially C and G flat, later G and D flat). Within the first five bars of the work, Shostakovich causes us to glimpse a vast harmonic panorama against which the musico-dramatic events will be played out. The basis for such an observation is not crystal-clear; there is a misty (not mysterious) atmosphere to the music, as the first violin’s initial theme plants A within an E flat context (another diminished fifth). Clearly, for those with ears to hear, we may have a long way to go.

But nowhere in this music—indeed, as it is probably true to claim in his entire output—is Shostakovich either uncertain in his aims, or unable to take sympathetic listeners with him. If the ‘personal’ background to this quartet remains a private matter, a message in code, the music throughout makes profound sense as music. Thus the tonal implications of the opening bars, to say nothing of the profoundly symphonic development of the tiny motifs which make up the thematic and intervallic material of the score, are carried through with relentless and unexpectedly original logic. Here is a truly great composer at work.

Over a deep but seemingly troubled octave E flat planted in the bass, the first subject group of ideas and fragments is stated by the first violin beginning on the dominant B flat, and characterised by a rising third in moderate dactylic rhythm (as a ghostly reminiscence of the second subject in Symphony No 5’s first movement) that falls a fourth to A natural. Although the pull is to E flat, the A natural (as a diminished fifth) at once literally brings a note of tension, destabilising the home tonality and leading to the second subject (initiated by, as it turns out, an important falling third) which is given to the cello in B minor. A rhythmic insertion of 3/2 against 4/4 (not unusual in Shostakovich’s work, but here as a subtle nudge) adds another factor which is to assume far greater importance in the quartet. The first-subject material is recalled, but the A natural—long-held, quietly, by the viola—now leads without a break and seemingly without a change of pulse to the second movement, a more lyrical scene in F sharp minor (of which, of course, the A is the third) and wholly in 3/2.

Despite the appearance of a theme on first violin, in which all twelve notes are heard, the movement is more concerned with exploring melodically the interval of a minor third (F sharp being tonally a minor third from E flat), later falling, and now leading at once to the third movement, also based upon F sharp, but more obsessed with the dominant, C sharp. This movement introduces the first genuinely fast music in the work. Without going into greater detail with regard to the tonal basis of this pivotal movement, suffice to say it later revolves around D minor and E minor (as the dominant of A), before climbing back to F sharp, the C sharp transformed into D flat. This now falls like a slow ostinato to C (it is, in fact, a transformation of the second violin’s oscillation at the beginning of the work), and it almost seems as though in this fourth movement C minor has arrived. In some ways it has, momentarily, but is always sidestepped by an E flat minor idea, slow and deep in the bass. There are exposed solo recitative-like passages for both violins and viola—pizzicato especially—and later the first violin, over a harmonic blur of superimposed adjacent fifths, which falls to B flat and A, whereupon the finale suddenly bursts upon us. This magnificent movement—almost String Quartet No 9a—plays for about two-fifths of the entire piece, and sees a powerful battle for the final establishment of the home key, through a redevelopment of the quartet’s entire material, fused by a dramaturgic-like vividness of expression which astonishes us by its intensity and range. This includes a seemingly new folk-like theme in 2/4 against the underlying hectic 3/4, an eruptive restatement of the first violin’s recitative on the cello, and a breathtaking fugal (!) restatement of the movement’s opening material with the pull of C minor against E flat defeated in the turbulent and exhausting final bars. With this work, Shostakovich’s genius is restated afresh.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 2001


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'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14' (CDA67156)
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