Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Allegretto – Adagio – Allegretto
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.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2003