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String Quartet No 10 in A flat major, Op 118

'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14' (CDA67156)
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 10, 12 & 14
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'Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets' (CDS44091/6)
Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets
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Movement 1: Andante
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Movement 2: Allegretto furioso
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Movement 3: Adagio: Passacaglia
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Movement 4: Allegretto – Andante
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String Quartet No 10 in A flat major, Op 118
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.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2003

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