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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

String Quartets Nos 9 & 15

Carducci String Quartet Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2021
Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Cox
Release date: April 2024
Total duration: 60 minutes 21 seconds
 

Shostakovich's String Quartet No 9—composed in 1960 and playing in five continuous movements of which the fifth is by some margin the most weighty—is here coupled with the composer's final contribution to the genre. No&bnsp;15 is imbued with a profound melancholy and was completed in the year before Shostakovich's death.

String Quartet No 9 in E flat major Op 117
In the 1960s, Shostakovich could have taken his music in any direction he wanted. He saw the younger generation experimenting with modernist and avant-garde trends they had picked up from the West. In 1961, he began work on a string quartet that would have been his ninth, but this was one of the very few occasions when he abandoned his first thoughts (the manuscript was only discovered a few years ago). The thirteenth symphony remained on familiar musical ground, and the controversy it raised came instead from the choice of poetic texts that skirted the boundaries of what was then politically acceptable. The true ninth quartet was written during May 1964 and dedicated to his wife of two years, Irina. Here, he is poised on the threshold of his late style, continuous with his earlier music, but now playing freely with the possibilities offered by atonality.

Shostakovich did not leave behind any discussion of the ninth quartet’s subject matter, so we can only guess at its mysteries through careful attention to musical allusions and symbols. There is an uninterrupted flow of music revolving around the same set of themes, motifs and textures, but the score indicates five movements.

The Ninth begins in E-flat major, marked tranquillo, with a murmuring second-violin part that makes reference to the 'writing theme' of the monastic chronicler Pimen, in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The cello and viola hold a steady E flat, but the first-violin melody strains the tranquil mood by veering off key, while the second violin suggests E flat minor rather than major. The second theme is scherzando, and led by the cello, with a strong dose of Shostakovich’s characteristic sarcasm.

The Adagio second movement begins with an intense choral lament, but the first violin soon goes its own way, with a line that is highly chromatic and almost atonal, harking back to its behaviour at the beginning of the quartet. The other instruments eventually drop out, leaving the first violin with a new, staccato motif that turns out to be the first theme of the next movement.

The Scherzo that follows is an ironic collection of silly tunes. The motive from the end of the slow movement is taken up in the colliding lines of the two violins, with a clear similarity to the music portraying 'Ophelia’s Insanity' in Shostakovich’s film score for Hamlet (completed in the same year). The initial polka turns into a galop, and keeps hinting at Rossini’s William Tell overture (he took this up again in the fifteenth symphony, where he actually quotes Rossini’s theme). Another little tune appears high in the first violin, as if whistled, accompanied by trills. This is interrupted several times by a pizzicato note in the violins designed to sound as harsh as possible (three strings are plucked on each instrument, but all produce the same note). This pizzicato effect, and an overall impression of jeering crowdedness suggests that the fun lies only on the surface.

The fourth movement is another Adagio, which takes up the closing idea of the Scherzo, but also exceeds the earlier Adagio in its intensity. The first violin vaguely suggests the 'writing theme' again, but it is now cramped, with a slower pace, and oscillating obsessively between two notes a semitone apart. Again, the other three instruments provide a kind of church chorus texture, eventually disappearing to leave the first violin alone with a melody of uncertain tonality. Unannounced, the second violin enters with sparse but violent and dissonant pizzicato chords. There is a return to the opening music, but then a similar set of violent chords, this time from the viola.

The fifth and final movement takes up almost half the time span of the quartet, and itself falls into five sections. Thematic material that we have heard in the previous movements reappears here, with heightened passion and power. The angry first section combines the semitone oscillation, an atonal melodic line, and a lamenting motif that becomes increasingly prominent. The second episode is indeed a brutal, barbaric dance, like some hellish scene from Hieronymus Bosch, almost unbearable in its incessant, inharmonious repetition of the same ungracious motifs. It gradually subsides, as if zooming out cinematically, before the whirlwind of the opening section returns. After an intense fugal passage, everything suddenly comes to a halt. This is the quartet’s dramatic highpoint. The violent pizzicato chords of the fourth movement return, and the cello is given an ardent soliloquy. It is the material from the Scherzo which hauls us back from that heart-wrenching moment, and as the quartet rushes towards its close, several earlier ideas merge together. The closing bars are deliberately half-hearted, lacking the grandeur that would befit a work of this scale, and still mixing minor with major.

String Quartet No 15 in E flat minor Op 144
Shostakovich wrote his fifteenth quartet in May 1974, while severely ill. By this stage of his life, he knew that each work might be his last (his death finally came just over a year later). Fittingly, he developed a style so concentrated that every phrase or gesture seems to be imbued with some symbolic significance. The design of this quartet is unique: there are six linked movements that all marked 'Adagio', and all are set in the same key of E flat minor. Each movement bears a title indicating its genre or its role: Elegy – Serenade – Intermezzo – Nocturne – Funeral March – Epilogue. This reliance on traditional genres had always been a part of Shostakovich’s essentially neoclassical approach that invites the listener to listen out for familiar features, which are sometimes allowed to play out, but are often subverted.

In the Elegy, Shostakovich returns us to the bare rudiments of music. There are some repeated notes, a phrase that circulates around one note, the addition of a second voice, and so on, all cast in the simplest of rhythms, but successfully creating the elegiac mood suggested by the title. When the Beethoven Quartet was rehearsing for the premiere, Shostakovich told them not to make any special efforts to engage the audience, even if they seemed bored—the music was supposed to sound as if all the life had been drained from it. In the middle section, another element of music is introduced: major triads, which are outlined in melodies that move up and down across a wide range. This is most likely an allusion to the beginning of Mendelssohn’s Octet, a nostalgic reminiscence that becomes more poignant when it reappears in the minor.

The Serenade initially belies its designation, beginning with a series of single notes, each swelling alarmingly in a crescendo. The dissonant pizzicato chords we heard in the ninth quartet return here, and only seem to increase the sense of eerie desolation. The only music that seems to justify the title 'Serenade' appears in the rather sickly waltz of the middle section. A dozen years earlier, Shostakovich had orchestrated Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, and the odd title of this quartet movement may refer to one of these songs, also entitled 'Serenade', in which Death visits a young maiden in the guise of a suitor. Shostakovich’s trademark three-note rhythm appears here, and it may refer to 'Mitenka', the diminutive form of his own name.

The Interlude presents a series of intense recitativo passages played by each of the instruments in turn. The material comes from Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (in an orchestral number from Act 2, played between scenes 5 and 6): this is expressionist music with an air of crude mockery. The opera had been heavily criticised back in 1930, and disappeared from the stage until its revival in Moscow while Shostakovich was writing the fifteenth quartet, so the music of the opera was very much on his mind at the time. A near-quotation of J S Bach also appears in this movement, where the second violin and viola evoke the opening chords of the celebrated Chaconne for solo violin. This quotation has a special significance, since Mieczyslaw Weinberg quoted the passage to tragic effect in his opera The Passenger, which had not yet been staged at that time. Shostakovich and Weinberg were close friends, and although Shostakovich was the senior figure, they influenced each other’s music.

In the Nocturne, piano-like arpeggios hark back to the Chopin pieces that established the genre, and in the midst of these is a lyrical melody. For most of the movements, there are only three instruments playing at a time, with each of the instruments 'missing' in turn. Before the movement has a chance to draw to a close, the funereal rhythms of the next movement already make their entry.

In the Funeral March, the standard rhythmic patterns are interspersed with the monologues by individual instruments: first the viola, then the cello, and finally the first violin. Each of these monologues eventually homes in on the interval of the fourth, which acts as a prominent focal point in the movement.

The Epilogue features passages in very rapid notes akin to the finale of Chopin’s second piano sonata, which also follows a funeral-march movement. Chopin’s finale was once described as 'the wind howling over graves', and this seems equally appropriate to Shostakovich’s finale. There are many reminiscences from the previous movements, but eventually the finale simply fades away, the instruction morendo ('dying') written by the final chord.

Marina Frolova-Walker © 2024

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