Movement 1: Elegy: Adagio
Movement 2: Serenade: Adagio
Movement 3: Intermezzo: Adagio
Movement 4: Nocturne: Adagio
Movement 5: Funeral March: Molto adagio
Movement 6: Epilogue: Adagio
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.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2002