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String Quartet No 9 in E flat major, Op 117

'Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9' (CDA67155)
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9
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'Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets' (CDS44091/6)
Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets
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Movement 1: Moderato con moto
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Movement 2: Adagio
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Movement 3: Allegretto
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Movement 4: Adagio
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Movement 5: Allegro
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String Quartet No 9 in E flat major, Op 117
The Ninth Quartet is in five movements. A quintuple ground plan was not unique in Shostakovich’s 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. 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.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2001

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Details for CDA67155 track 11
Recording date
1 December 2000
Recording venue
St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
Recording producer
Alexander Gerutsky
Recording engineer
Gerhard Tses
Hyperion usage
  1. Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 5, 7 & 9 (CDA67155)
    Disc 1 Track 11
    Release date: April 2001
    Please, someone, buy me …
  2. Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets (CDS44091/6)
    Disc 3 Track 11
    Release date: January 2006
    Deletion date: April 2010
    6CDs Boxed set (at a special price) — Deleted
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