Movement 1: Overture
Movement 2: Recitative and Romance
Movement 3: Waltz
Movement 4: Theme and Variations
It begins with a magnificent, almost theatrical, gesture – an affirmative theme on first violin, triumphantly in A major, with bare fifths and fourths underlining the tonality. The theme is repeated by the cello, as in E major, but if there seems something almost neo-classical about this opening (hence the movement's title 'Overture', perhaps), it is soon undermined by a darkening of key and irregularly shortened bar-lengths. The semitonal second subject, barely holding on to the dominant as it passes across distant tonalities, is more repetitiously nervous and uncertain, leading to the (very exceptional, but also used in the Ninth Symphony) exposition double-bar and repeat.
The development is both extensive and masterly. The first subject is sung as a waltz-tune in a kind of C minor, with gentle pizzicato accompaniment, echoed (as in the exposition) by the cello, and the second subject, also in C minor, is developed by the viola. The previously barely-referred-to gruppetto which ended the first subject and the rhythmic ictus which characterised the second now take centre stage. The music is carried into fearful uncharted territories as the impetus remains fast and the dynamic rarely falls below forte, until a sudden, deathly E flat minor chord – the farthest possible key from A major – slides the second subject's semitonality upwards, until A major is reached, the movement's material now recapitulated in reverse order and shortened form. The first subject appears to end the movement, but is interrupted by a final defiant reference to the second before an astonishing, classical perfect cadence peremptorily closes the discussion.
The second movement, 'Recitative and Romance', is enveloped by two long declamatory un-barred solos for first violin, accompanied by long-held lower chords; the effect is no-wise predictable, at times recalling Orthodox Church music, Middle Eastern incantations, the Gesangszene of Louis Spohr and J S Bach – but always remaining spiritually expressive. If, structurally, this also anticipates the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, it surely is a glimpse into the more private world of the composer, which surfaced directly in the works of his final decade. The 'Romance', in a slow 3/4, brings no new material to the work, for it is based almost entirely on the material of the first movement, now changed virtually beyond recognition and developed along quite different lines and moving to an impressive climax. The shortened return of the Recitative closes with clear references to the first movement's subjects before the final simple B flat major.
Connected thematically as they are, the nature of each of the first two movements is introductory, a characteristic which is carried over into the third movement, 'Waltz'. Here we encounter one of the most amazing movements in Shostakovich's music up to that time, a movement so subtle in its construction and breathtaking in its achievement. Naturally in 3/4 (almost) throughout, the triple time which has characterised the first two movements is carried forward, but the tonality and timbre are vastly different. It is in E flat minor, the tonal opposite from the first movement, and of which B flat (which ended the second) is the dominant. The four instruments are muted throughout, even when marked fff thus giving an astonishingly ghostly, almost glassy, feel to the music. Finally, the waltz-theme itself is based on the destabilising second subject of the first movement. As this unique movement comes to its close on a ppp E flat minor chord, the air is full of mystery.
Shostakovich has here presented himself with an extraordinary compositional problem – which he solves with genius. The formal devices which he has used in the Quartet up to now demand a resolution in semi-classical structure; the tonality should return to A, but it is unlikely, in view of what has occurred, to be A major. Therefore, a semi-classical return to A minor is the tonal solution. But the material of the Quartet demands both a return that embraces triple time and a solution that combines elements of both subjects from the first movement. Quite apart from anything else, this has to make sense as music, and the implication is a finale which carries the psychologically penetrating emotional weight of the entire work.
The result is a 'Theme and Variations', prefaced by an introduction taking E flat minor as its starting point in powerful octaves on second violin, viola and cello, akin to the opening statement of the Quartet and answered by first violin unaccompanied, thematically musing over the Waltz theme at infinitely slower tempo, but texturally recalling the Recitative and Romance. The new element is a 4/4 pulse, in which, Moderato con moto, the viola, unaccompanied, has a folk-like theme in A minor with a single 3/2 bar for variety, but which theme actually includes the movement's introductory octave idea. Gradually, the variations follow, almost as in classical precedent: second violin, first violin and cello add to the texture, but A minor is not relinquished, until the astonishing thematic unity of this work is revealed when pianissimo triplets urge the music faster. Now the second group of variations unfolds, set in motion in 3/4 by the cello. They gather, ever more brilliantly in character, as the music, expanding with genuine energy, embraces both duple and triple time with cumulative power. An attempt to drag the music back to E flat minor fails as the springboard which launched the finale is brought into play again; a minor third higher, in F sharp minor, heralds a new variation, and another one, to A minor, into which deep tonal region the Quartet now moves, secure in its final symphonic integration of all of this undoubted masterpiece's large-scale contrasts.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1999