Movement 1: Allegretto
Movement 2: Lento
Movement 3: Allegro
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.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2001