With this fourth volume, the Pacifica Quartet brings its survey of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets to a close. As with the each of the earlier two-disc sets, a bonus is offered in the form of a string quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries, this time the String Quartet No. 3 by Alfred Schnittke. Previous discmates were Myaskovsky,Read more Prokofiev, and Weinberg.
Between two hospitalizations in 1970, Shostakovich managed to complete his 13th Quartet in August of that year. Alone among the composer’s 15 quartets, this Bb-Minor work is in a single movement and exhibits a palindromic form—ABCBA. Like the 12th Quartet before it, this one, too, is based on a tone row encompassing all 12 semitones of the chromatic scale. Shostakovich’s endgame, however, is to confirm tonality rather than to deny it.
Much of the composer’s music seems to dwell in dark, brooding, baleful places—that’s nothing new—but this 13th Quartet arguably surpasses in mood and atmosphere even the spectral chill and ghoulish humor of his earlier works. It unmasks the face of death, and it’s a visage so hideous to behold that gazing upon it will freeze your eyeballs in their sockets. I can only describe the Pacifica Quartet’s reading of the score by saying it achieves a sub-zero degree of cold that can penetrate and shatter your bones. Never have I heard such a graphic representation in music of the daemon Thanatos, not by the Fitzwilliam, Emerson, St. Petersburg, Brodsky, or Alexander String Quartets. This is scary stuff.
Shostakovich’s next quartet, No. 14 in F# Minor, reverts back to a key more convenient for string players, three sharps, allowing for the use of some open strings, and being a lot easier to finger than the five flats of the previous quartet. The composer began work on the piece in 1972, but took time off for a trip to Ireland and England, where he visited his friend, Benjamin Britten, in Aldeburgh. That delayed completion of the Quartet until the following spring, after Shostakovich had returned to Moscow.
The score is dedicated to Sergei Shirinsky, the original cellist of the Beethoven Quartet, and contains a cryptogram in the third movement on “Seryozha,” a familiar or affectionate form of address for Sergei. However, the pitches—D#-E-D-E-G-A—make no sense unless transliterated into their Cyrillic equivalents. The “E,” for example, represents the Cyrillic letter “ë,” which I’m given to understand is pronounced “yo,” thereby denoting the second syllable in “Seryozha.”
Compared to the 13th Quartet, No. 14 is positively playful. Still, being by Shostakovich, the music does have its bleak and menacing moments, but also one passage in particular in the third movement, beginning at 4:49 in this performance that’s of utterly aching beauty. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the score, but if my ears don’t deceive me, it sounds like the viola playing in double stops for a number of bars, accompanied by gentle pizzicatos in the violins. If I’m right, and it is the viola, then Masumi Per Rostad’s playing at this point is simply breathtaking; which is not to take anything away from Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, and Brandon Vamos, whose playing throughout this entire series has been nothing but phenomenal.
Shostakovich’s last quartet, No. 15, is clearly a valedictory work in much the same way that Beethoven’s final quartets are. Completed in May 1974, a year and three months before his death, Shostakovich chose for this score what Stephen Harris calls “the mysterious but traditionally morbid key of Eb Minor.” “Morbid” may be one word for it, but with a key signature of six flats most string players would call it by a word or words not to be spoken in polite company. Had Shostakovich lived to write a 16th quartet, one can only wonder if he’d have upped the ante to seven flats with a score in Ab Minor or Cb Major.
In six movements, the 15th Quartet is the composer’s longest, playing for some 36 minutes in the Pacifica’s performance. Moreover, each of the six movements is in the same Eb-Minor key and in one degree or another of Adagio. As quoted by Elizabeth Wilson in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, the composer himself gave this performance instruction: “Play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom.”
The music obviously speaks of facing death, but it’s not macabre and malignant like the 13th Quartet; rather, it’s mostly melancholy, sorrowful, and resigned, with the occasional defiant outburst. If I singled out violist Rostad for his playing in the 14th Quartet, I have to note first violinist Simin Ganatra’s superb execution of the third-movement cadenza in the 15th Quartet.
Shostakovich’s string quartets have been extremely fortunate from the very beginning to have received quite a few outstanding recordings. A number of them are cited above, but there are earlier ones by the Beethoven and Borodin Quartets that have historical significance, as well as more recent ones by the Sorrel and Mandelring Quartets (the last two of which I’ve not heard). But of those I have heard—and that would include all the others named in this review—I believe I’m prepared to say that this cycle by the Pacifica Quartet is the top contender. Whether you already have one or more Shostakovich quartet cycles in your collection, or you have none, the Pacifica’s is a must-have for anyone of the conviction that these are the most profound musical utterances in the realm of the string quartet since Beethoven.
Disc two closes with a performance of Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 1983. Seth Brodsky, assistant professor of music and the humanities at the University of Chicago (no connection to the Brodsky Quartet), notes Schnittke’s “anti-classical” or “polystylistic” approach, which “depends on shattering classical norms of balance, purity, and wholeness for a multiplicity of styles.” “Schnittke’s Third Quartet,” Brodsky continues, “shatters all three within its first minute. We hear only broken pieces from other times and other works—first from Orlando de Lassus’s Stabat Mater (later 1500s), then from Beethoven‘s Grosse Fuge (1825), and finally from Shostakovich‘s famous ‘musical signature,’ ‘D-S-C-H,’ first used in his Fifth String Quartet of 1952. Schnittke takes these three musical modules, from disparate traditions traversing half a millennium, and puts them directly after one another, only to have the whole thread snap and fall to the ground.”
As works by Schnittke go—at least among those I can claim to have heard—this Third Quartet is fairly accessible, an impression borne out by its relative popularity. Not counting the present version by the Pacifica Quartet, the work has received six recordings, one of which, with the Borodin Quartet on a Virgin Classics CD, to my surprise, I found on the shelf and dusted off for comparison. Once again, for playing of arresting graphic detail, the Pacifica wins hands-down.
Among the best of the Shostakovich cycles on CDJanuary 9, 2014By Dean Frey See All My Reviews"This is the final volume in the Pacifica Quartet's superb series of the Shostakovich quartets entitled The Soviet Experience. I've commented before on the added value of the concept: each album includes two CDs, with 3 or 4 Shostakovitch quartets, an additional quartet by a great Soviet composer (Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and here Schnittke), a long and illuminating essay about the music, and evocative Soviet-era graphics. Volume 4 has all of this, but when I consider the whole series, I'm struck by how impressive it would have been even without this framing device. These are first-class recordings of the 15 quartets Shostakovich wrote from 1938 until 1974, and I would place the Pacifica Quartet in the top group of complete Shostakovich recordings, along with the Fitzwilliam and Borodin Quartets. With this impressive accomplishment under their belts, I wonder what interesting recording projects these talented young musicians are contemplating now?"Report Abuse