This coupling of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (1940) with his Second String Quartet (1944) might seem an unusual, almost random one. But there is a link. According to Shostakovich’s close friend Isaak Glikman, the composer had intended to write a second quartet to follow the First of 1938, but instead wrote the Quintet so that he would have something to play with the illustrious Beethoven Quartet, whose artistry he greatly admired.
Both the Quintet and the eventual Second Quartet were premiered by the Beethovens, with Shostakovich himself as pianist in the Quintet. Finding new ways of programming Shostakovich is becoming increasingly difficult, and this option seems as good as any, graced as it is with a certain, albeit slightly tenuous connection between the two works but also providing variety and contrast of texture and intent.
The Takács Quartet, whose healthy output of CDs is generally, though not exclusively, associated with the Austro-German repertoire of Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Brahms, applies itself with confidence to the Shostakovich vocabulary in the Second Quartet. The natural sheen of the playing and a true feeling of ensemble are qualities that have long been hallmarks of the Takács’s performances, and here they are combined with a haunting atmosphere (notably at the start of the theme and variations forming the finale) together with, in the first movement for instance, a determined rhythmic impetus and an astuteness in pointing up accents. The intimacy of language that also runs through the Second Quartet is something that the Takács both appreciates and conveys, with the flux of moods instinctively felt and communicated and contained within a secure, compellingly lucid structure.
For the Piano Quintet the Takács is joined by Marc-André Hamelin, who launches the first movement with a decisive thrust to which the string players respond with marked intensity. This then yields to one of Shostakovich’s whimsical tunes and to a passage of magical lyricism that is beautifully characterised. Perspective and context are the keywords in this performance. There is an artless flow of ideas, but they are held in ideal equipoise: the slow fugue of the second movement possesses a sustaining momentum and mounting power, the ensuing scherzo being injected with incisiveness and rhythmic bite. The Quintet has long been one of Shostakovich’s most popular works, but here it is refreshed with sensitivity and expressive insight.