Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 4; No. 16
cpo 777 313 (65:23)
The first volume in a series: about time, but who am I to object? We have a fairly large number of excellent complete versions of the Shostakovich string quartets, but none of his friend and admirer, Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996). Several of the forthcoming releases will contain first recordings too.
The String Quartet No. 4 was finished in 1945, two years after Weinberg had sent the manuscript of his
First Symphony to Shostakovich. The influence of the latter composer is already profound, largely in the harmonic progressions and accompanying figures. The modalism inherited from Judaic Ashkenazi music is also prominent, though this isn’t due to Shostakovich; rather, the stimulus could be seen as working the other way, Shostakovich’s interest in Russo-Judaic folk themes being spurred by Weinberg. By turns reflective, kinetic (the angular, stylized folk dances of the Scherzo), and dirge-like (the slow movement), it is the quartet’s finale that impresses me most: starting in a quiet, intimately confident manner, only to founder, fragment, and ultimately lament softly to its conclusion. Weinberg handles his materials throughout in a masterly fashion, with excellent part-writing, and a poetic finesse in both outer movements.
The penultimate quartet in this series was composed in 1981. Gone is the polish and poetry of the earlier work. Its textures are leaner, linear, and more dissonant. The use of Jewish folk idioms continues, but is integrated below the surface into the thematic and harmonic continuity. It is an introverted piece, with an obvious love of craft—especially so in the inscrutable Scherzo, with its obsession over athematic, trumpet-like fourths, and its eerie trio in 7/8 time, pianissimo and bowed over the fingerboard. Of the Lento, David Fanning’s excellent liner notes point out that “it keeps its emotional cards close to its chest,” and that’s an apt description of the entire piece. Like the late Shostakovich quartets, but on its own terms, this one of Weinberg seems a record of travels over a grey, joyless landscape.
The Danel Quartet, hardly a stranger to music of this type, has recorded the complete Shostakovich quartets (Fuga Libera 512). That noted, they are significantly more successful in the later quartet, than in the earlier. The emotional reticence of the Quartet No. 16 suits their carefully balanced sound and attention to rhythmic flow. There is more to be found in the Quartet No. 4, on the other hand, than they discover. The opening Allegro lacks expressive variety, and though the Scherzo itself is played with incisive relish, the rhapsodic line taken over its
trio could be more lyrical. The climax of the Largo marziale (played here as an adagio, and losing some oppressive weight) at 7:30 is crude
-on-the-sleeve—but not to the Danels, who don’t do
That noted, there is enormous gusto when the ensemble digs into the dance-like portions of this music, and they pay meticulous attention to detail. For undertaking this project, both they and cpo deserve a round of applause. Factor in excellent sound, and you have a release that should interest any student of 20th-century chamber music. Fans of Weinberg will of course find this irresistible, and so they should.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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