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The Soviet Experience, Volume 1:
String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and His Contemporaries
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 5-8, Ops. 92, 101, 108, 110
Nikolai Miaskovsky: String Quartet No. 13, Op. 86
Pacifica Quartet

Review By Joe Milicia


  Dmitri Shostakovich's 15 string quartets have become increasingly regarded as among the composer's greatest achievements, especially taken as a whole, and have certainly become a mainstay of the quartet literature. So it is surprising that there have not been many recordings of the complete set, beyond the celebrated ones of the Borodin, Fitzwilliam and Emerson Quartets--and nothing in the last decade. Thus it is exciting to have the first discs in a planned full cycle from the tremendously gifted Pacifica Quartet. Cedille is evidently releasing them gradually in 2-CD packages, each with a quartet by another Soviet artist — in this case one by Shostakovich's older compatriot Nikolai Miaskovsky — to give a broader perspective on the Soviet chamber-music scene. The stirring performances and excellent sound on the first release (priced as one full-priced CD), plus valuable program notes by William Hussey, bode well for future discs in the series.

"Volume 1" features four Shostakovich quartets spanning the years 1952-60, plus Miaskovsky's from 1950. It includes the quartet that is by far the most popular in performance, the Eighth, with its prominent quotations from other works by the composer, though it's far too inward and disturbing to be dismissed as a medley of "Shostakovich's greatest hits." What comes across most strikingly in listening to this grouping is how individualistic each of the four quartets is, despite practically every bar being instantly recognizable as Shostakovich's.

No. 5, in B-flat major, in three movements played without pause, is the longest of the quartets at hand, at 32 minutes. It opens vigorously, maybe a bit obsessively with a repeated figure that circles back on itself; the second subject is a wistful waltz. At the heart of the first movement is another, very tender theme: scholars tell us that it derives from the then-unpublished Clarinet Trio of a younger composer, Galina Ustvolskaya, to whom Shostakovich unsuccessfully proposed a couple of years later. So this quartet, like a good number of the others, has a private drama reflected in the musical interweaving of its themes. The very quiet slow movement is haunting, or rather feels haunted: words can hardly do justice to its spectral loveliness. In the gentle finale another waltz makes its appearance — the Pacifica play it with the greatest delicacy — but echoes of the first movement return as well by the time the music slows to its Andante close.

No. 6 in G major was written in 1956 during the brief "thaw" after Stalin's death and the composer's honeymoon with his second wife (though reportedly he was ill during the composition of the quartet). At least on the surface it's a more traditional string quartet in four movements, though the more one listens, the more moody and unconventional it seems. None of the movements is vigorously fast. Instead, we encounter a gentle polka for the opening theme of the Allegretto first movement that quickly leads us into a darker complexity. The Moderato con moto that follows is in a lilting ¾ time; it becomes rather ghostly, though oddly sweet, in some middle passages in the upper string registers. The Lento third movement is a somber passacaglia, and the finale, again Allegretto, seems to be holding back from any forthright emotional expression, though the pulse is flowing until its final bars, when it hesitates and then fades away. Actually, all four movements end quietly in the same manner, evidently another private message from the composer.

At just over 12 minutes in the Pacifica's performance, Quartet No. 7 seems — in a good way — much longer: i.e., it covers quite a range of drama in its tightly coiled framework. The opening movement, deceptively simple and spare at its start, has the edginess and irony one finds in parts of the Ninth Symphony. The eerie slow movement, with its restless arpeggios on the second violin, toys with a theme from the Fifth Symphony. The finale opens with an extremely agitated fugue, recalling the scherzo of the First Violin Concerto, but calms down as themes from the other movements are brought in, giving the whole quartet the semblance of a single-movement structure. The Pacifica players are at their very finest in this quartet, ablaze with intensity in every bar, shifting moods with lightning speed.

The Eighth Quartet was dedicated "In Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War," and was written in three days (!) in 1960 when the composer was on an official visit to Dresden and other parts of East Germany. But clearly the work is as deeply personal, even autobiographical, as any of the other quartets, beginning with its opening 4-note theme. In a good number of his works, notably the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich used the notes D-Eb-C-B to represent his initials (D.Sch., in German notation), or some variation thereof, and here most of the quartet (five movements without pause) is permeated by the motif.

The Largo opening movement includes unmistakable quotations from the first movements of the composer's First and Fifth Symphonies (drastically slowed down in the first case). The abrupt Allegro molto that follows features the Jewish theme of the Second Piano Trio—here extremely intense and agitated, partly thanks to the more unified sound of four strings instead of the more varied colors of the piano with two strings. The next section opens with a mocking waltz that leads to the main theme from the First Cello Concerto, while the slow fourth movement features a violently articulated three-note pattern that gives way to quotations of two somber songs (one by the composer, the other a Soviet hymn) alluding to prison. The finale is a slow fugue on the DSCH theme. Commentators debate what it all signifies, but it's a compelling experience in this recording.

After the modernism of Shostakovich's quartets, it takes some mental adjustment to listen to the far more traditional Miaskovsky Quartet No. 13 (the composer's last), which on first hearing may seem to date from 1900 rather than 1950. But it's worth the effort. Nikolai Miaskovsky, born in 1881, has always been on the fringe of Western musical consciousness: Frederick Stock commissioned his 21st Symphony for the Chicago Symphony in 1940, and it was recorded by Ormandy and the Philadelphia, but only the Russian Yevgeny Svetlanov has recorded all 27 symphonies, in the early 1990s. The 1944 Cello Concerto has been championed by the likes of Rostropovich and Mischa Maisky, and the Second Cello Sonata has been recorded several times. It's worth noting that Miaskovsky fell under the same severe condemnations as Shostakovich and Prokoviev for writing "un-Soviet" music, and the conservatism of the Quartet No. 13 is considered to be tied to the political climate.

However much this quartet may seem to hark back more to the world of, say, Edward MacDowell than Shostakovich, it's an engaging work, and the Pacifica bring warm, full sound and infectious rhythms to their performance. The Moderato first movement has a lovely opening theme, and the agitated scherzo (Presto fantastico) is striking for its soulful middle section. The cantabile slow movement is richly lyrical, and the energico rondo-finale brings a genial close.

The Pacifica Quartet plays each of the five works with utter commitment and a distinctive character to each. Their tone never becomes astringent even in the eerie high registers of some of the Shostakovich slow movements, or raspy even in the most violent passages. To be sure, some listeners might like their Shostakovich astringent and raspy — and earlier recordings might provide such sounds by default. But the Pacifica never stint on the strangeness or the occasional violence, and Cedille's excellent recording allows both the wisps of high sound and the explosions of energy to register equally well.





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