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Fragments Vol 1 - Shostakovich / Alexander String Quartet

Shostakovich / Alexander String Quartet
Release Date: 07/13/2010 
Label:  Foghorn Classics   Catalog #: 1988   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Dmitri ShostakovichRecorded Sound
Performer:  Roger Woodward
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 44 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Captured here, on three discs, is the first half of the Alexander String Quartet’s complete Shostakovich cycle. Superbly recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005–06, this exquisite collection contains the first seven quartets, the Piano Quintet with legendary Australian pianist Roger Woodward, and two exceptional transcriptions for string quartet by ASQ’s first violinist of a pair of the piano Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87 (1950–51). Spanning roughly the period from 1937–1960, this beautiful collection is accompanied by superb liner notes from musicologist Eric Bromberger.

Alexander String Quartet:
Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz: violins
Paul Yarbrough: viola
Sandy Wilson:
Read more cello
Roger Woodward: piano

R E V I E W:

"There’s an irony about writing reviews, and I am sure there are colleagues who would agree, that it is relatively easy to write a critical commentary of a performance or recording which has plenty of faults, or which is just plain beige. One can get down to work, pointing out weaknesses while balancing these against the positive aspects of a production and that of the competition, and before you know it the job is complete. Listening to these new Shostakovich recordings from the start, my immediate impression was that the playing lacked some of that intense grittiness I’m more used to hearing from my principal reference, that of the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Decca. I have spent a lot of time with the Alexander Quartet recordings however, partially thanks to a botched hernia operation which kept me off work for longer than necessary. As a result of this extra listening, I’ve come to appreciate how, as with their survey of the Beethoven Quartets, this ensemble clearly approaches the music with a view to its place in the composer’s timeline as well as purely on musical/aesthetic grounds. Both they and the Fitzwilliam Quartet allow the sunnier aspects of the music to sing through in the Quartet No.1, with those shades of angst held well in proportion. The dramatic extremes of the Quartet No.2 are, I think, more open to wider interpretation – is it dark or light, secretive or intimate? The Fitzwilliam Quartet’s view is I feel more on the dark side, bringing out the sense of mortality that the composer’s wartime experiences introduced. The Alexander Quartet introduces some more of the dancing qualities in the opening, perhaps emphasising more of the celebrations of heroism in the air at the time. Zakarias Grafilo has been the Alexander’s 1 st violin for a while now, having replaced Ge-Fang Yang in 2000. His fine, deep tone gives the second movement’s Recitative a strong character, lightening like the opening of a stained-glass window into the faux-naive Romance which follows. Their third movement Waltz for me conjures the atmosphere of a smoky, dark wood-panelled interior, with this music coming to us on the soundtrack of a black and white film – the 78 rpm player’s horn introducing an element of sculpture into the picture. The muted strings repress the ebullience of the second section, maintaining that hazy image and introducing Shostakovich’s signature neurotic turbulence of conflict and struggle. The final Adagio Theme with Variations begins with less of a symphonic scale than with the Fitzwilliam, but this more gentle opening allows the music to develop and grow, the full impact of the final bars providing a true climax.
For the Quartet No.3 I can offer a comparison with that lovely DG recording with the Hagen Quartett. The greater transparency this 2006 recording offers over the Fitzwilliam’s is punctuated with needle-sharp articulation and wide contrasts of tone and character. With equal technical panache and some subtle twists the Alexander Quartet create their own view on this seminal work. The opening is a little less jaunty than with the Hagens, more of a swaggering walk than a quasi-jolly dance. As a result, their sound in the following counterpoint is less urgent but no less characterful – it certainly avoids becoming laboured and static. Rather than go all-out with the pesante viola triad in the opening of the second movement, this becomes more of an accompaniment, allowing the flow of the upper instruments their full expression. On balance, the Alexanders for some reason sound slower almost through the entirety of this quartet, though the timings don’t always bear this out. They somehow convey the feeling of creating space around the notes even where the textures in the music would seem to make this as good as impossible. There is certainly no lack of urgency in the Allegro non troppo, and the subsequent Adagio refuses to ramble and lose shape, in this case shaving almost half a minute off the Hagen’s timing. I’m torn between these two recordings of this quartet, which has to be a good thing. I suppose a smidge more forward momentum might have given the Alexander Quartet the edge in the final Moderato, and a tad greater sense of involvement in the in-between tracts of this arguably over-long movement. I do however admire their sense of apocalyptic passion where the music demands, and their elegance of tone in the relatively high-pitched tessitura in this quartet. Come back to me in a year’s time and I’ll probably still be humming and hawing. The Hagen Quartett is lively and filled with contrast, but there are one or two moments of fast gear-change where I ‘notice’ them, not really a faltering, but having a moment of marginal discomfort where the Alexanders sail on regardless.
Quartet No.4 is muted in more ways than one, with two of its movements being played with mutes, giving the instruments that hazy, secretive feeling. The rest of the piece is also very subdued in atmosphere, though the Alexander Quartet are sensitive to the changes of internal colour in each section, including the dance-like feel of the penultimate Allegretto and ultimately protesting final movement. The final blast of a foghorn is unfortunate. Once is a novelty, more than that is disrespectful to all concerned, and I’ll leave it at that. Coming back to this piece from the Fitzwilliam Quartet, and I find their silvery tone has a more chilling effect – less warmly intimate and more intense. It’s not that the Alexanders are cosily fireside cheerful, but by degrees one does sense something more of a connection with the Russian character from the Fitzwilliam Quartet. It’s as if the Alexander players take the work as the private statement it became, hidden from the public until the death of Stalin in 1953. From the Fitzwilliam Quartet it’s Shostakovich’s view on the Russian people through the wrong end of a telescope, dancing like puppets, or, awaiting the thaw; suppressed celebrations going on merely in their minds. These are two views with equal validity – and at least the Alexander Quartet is a clear winner in terms of intonation.
Like its predecessor, the Quartet No.5 was held back from public performance until 1953, and with its dissonant complexities it’s not really hard to hear why this was the case. Eric Bromberger in his excellent booklet notes points out that this is one of the darkest in the entire cycle, and at over 30 minutes is a serious proposition for both players and audience. I won’t say the Alexander Quartet make it sound easy, but neither do they seem fazed by the extremes in the first movements. It is in this magisterial mastery of such technical obstacles that they win out over many other recordings, the tonalities remaining clear even when everyone seems to be trying to play as high as possible all at once. The jaunty character of the Quartet No.6 always comes as something of a surprise after all that almost silent intensity at the end of the fifth. Shostakovich had re-married, somewhat impulsively it has to be said, but the sunny nature of the music reflects some of the optimism he must have felt at the time. The Alexander players stroke the softer phrases with appropriate affection, but don’t hold back on some of the passages of conflict and strange passion in the opening Allegretto. The contrasting lyrical and rhythmic characters in the second movement are highly attractive, just the right amount of symbolism – if that’s what you are looking for: like two opposites which somehow attract and harmonise.
Taking a break from the quartets, and I was delighted to see some of the Op.87 Preludes and Fugues, originally for piano, and arranged here for string quartet by Zakarias Grafilo. The effect with these arrangements is quite different to that of the same music on piano, but Shostakovich’s idiom in these pieces works extremely well for strings. The Alexander Quartet balance the voicing with easy expertise, which is essential for any kind of comprehension in this kind of contrapuntal music, but I was surprised to hear a moment or two of dodgy intonation in the Prelude & Fugue in C minor. The famous Prelude & Fugue in D-flat major opens almost inevitably rather heavier with strings, but the ear soon accepts the music on its own terms, and the textures are relieved by some gorgeously witty and well-executed pizzicati. The fugue itself becomes a new Shostakovich animal in its own right, with even more of the neuroses than you have with the piano version. The darkness of the Quartet No.13 is lightened in the final disc of this set, as it concludes with the sprightly Op.87 No.17. The parallel movements in the prelude create some interesting sonorities, and the fugue comes across with an almost naive sense of simplicity. Op.87 No.1 could possibly have used a little more space in the famous opening C major prelude – the strings could have sustained those chords so nicely, but at least they prevent the music turning into a church chorale. The fugue is one of Shostakovich’s most noble statements, and works well with strings. As ever with such transparent music, it is the intonation which proves more problematic than one might expect, and this fugue is full of niggly augmented and diminished intervals which do create some minor problems. My hat goes off to Zakarias Grafilo for his excellent arrangements however, and these pieces certainly make for equally, if no more effective string quartet music than some of those Bach Fugues.
Another substantial extra is the Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57. Joined by the powerful piano playing of Roger Woodward, the quartet seems to shrink in size a little, and I would personally have had a little less presence in the piano sound. It’s partly sheer balance, but also that the piano is a fraction too far forward, which meant I felt a bit bludgeoned when those repeated high notes come in. The performance is very good however. I compared it with one of my favourites, that with the Nash Ensemble on Virgin Classics, and in terms of tempi and timings there is little to choose. Ian Brown’s piano is equally powerful here, but as a listener one feels at a marginally more respectful and realistic distance. The Nash Ensemble strings are a little more nasal, the Alexander ‘sound’ richer and warmer in general. As with the differences in character with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, this gives the Nash Ensemble an impression of greater intensity. Taken in isolation the Alexander performance is fine, with its own forceful sense of communication. It doesn’t however quite take your soul to the same pain barrier as some performances. I was interested to see that the 1950 recording made by Shostakovich himself with the Borodin Quartet differs from these interpretations, with significantly longer Fugue and Intermezzo movements, adding around two minutes to each. The sustained emotion created in these movements does take you to different worlds, especially in the Fugue. It is intriguing to make such comparisons and as a historical document this recording is priceless, but I have to admit the transfer on my 1991 Vogue CD is pretty atrocious in parts.
Returning to the quartets, and we’re up to No.7. Remarkably compact at around 13 minutes, the striking pizzicato feature in the first movement is taken toothsomely by the Alexander players, with plenty of resonance and a fearless attack. Absolute rhythmic security is also an essential aspect of this piece, not only in the fast ostinati of the opening and final movements, but also in the wandering legato lines of the second. The Hagen Quartett undercut the Alexander by over a minute in this piece, a result of a brisker Lento and wilder finale. The Hagens have a lighter, more skittish view of the complex final movement, and it’s a question of whether you prefer this over the Alexander’s greater heft. There’s no doubt that the Hagen Quartett is extremely exciting, but you almost feel you have to look the other way in the presence of such almost indecently showy virtuosity. I do appreciate Paul Yarbrough’s rough viola entries in this movement, and find the overall impression to have more than enough grit and spirit. The final pages are indeed ‘haunting and moving’."

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in C major, Op. 49 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 14 Minutes 18 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in A major, Op. 68 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 35 Minutes 42 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 4 in D major, Op. 83 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1949; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 24 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 3 in F major, Op. 73 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 31 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Quintet for Piano and Strings in G minor, Op. 57 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Roger Woodward (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1940; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 32 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Preludes and Fugues (24) for Piano, Op. 87: no 20 in C minor by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950-1951; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 9 Minutes 11 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 5 in B flat major, Op. 92 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1952; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 30 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 6 in G major, Op. 101 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 23 Minutes 17 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960; USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 12 Minutes 56 Secs. 
Preludes and Fugues (24) for Piano, Op. 87: no 15 in D flat major by Dmitri Shostakovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USSR 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, New 
Length: 5 Minutes 33 Secs. 

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