Notes and Editorial Reviews
These fabled works dating from 1960–1975 represent some of Shostakovich’s most bitterly frank, occasionally transcendental essays for the string quartet. At times poignant yet occasionally ribald, these performances have been called utterly compelling. Unique in this stunning survey is a fine performance of his “Unfinished” quartet, the first recording of what was originally to have been Shostakovich’s 9th Quartet, discovered and published in 2003. Additionally, listeners will find two more of Zakarias Grafilo’s extraordinary transcriptions of the 1950/51 Preludes and Fugues for Piano Op. 87.
Alexander String Quartet:
Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz: violins
Paul Yarbrough: viola
R E V I E W:
"Volume 2 of this set appears in a separate gatefold package with a clear family resemblance to the first, and begins with the ever so famous
String Quartet No.8. As per expectations, the Alexander Quartet creates a fine atmosphere in the opening, although there are one or two places where I felt the width of some intervals received short change, with some resultant intonation questions. Such minor points are picky to be sure, but with boring old perfection as our goal they end up being mentioned, even when the performance of the piece as a whole is one of the strongest I know. The energy in the
Allegro molto and
Allegretto movements is high octane, and all the elements are present to keep bringing you back for more. The sheer texture in the sound of the quartet is worth mentioning here, but is valid for the whole set. All important is the resonant power of Sandy Wilson’s cello, underpinning the harmonies, but also capable of rattling your tonsillectomy scars at moments like the ferocious chords in the first of the two
Lento movements in
No.8. Zakarias Grafilo’s first violin can be gorgeously sweet over the top of everyone, but is held in reserve and very much part of the ensemble for most of the time – his genuine solos are special, but as with the cello, you are often barely aware of how his sound is so influential on the quality of the whole. Frederick Lifsitz’s second violin is slightly more elliptical in sound, supporting and refined, unobtrusive but in no way subservient. Paul Yarbrough’s viola can be like the deep furrow in a ploughed field of clay, cutting through with a life of its own, but as with all the other instruments it is chameleon, changing colour alongside the rest. Yes, I hear you say, but this is the way things
should be with string quartets, and surely just typical good ensemble practice. Agreed – but don’t be surprised when you seek out some prime examples of flabby-vibrato 1
st violin, arrhythmic 2
nd, atonal violas or tubby cellos by way of a reply. Back to Shostakovich’s
Quartet No.8, and it is clear that this ensemble have played this music until it has become engraved upon the whorls of their fingerprints. There are myriad other recordings, each with its own strengths, but as the music evolved I felt loath to drag them all in for
post-mortem analysis. Rest assured, I promise this recording will do you just fine.
The first recording of the
Unfinished String Quartet fragment belongs around here as far as chronology goes. Shostakovich mentioned starting a ninth quartet, a work in ‘the Russe style’, which he then reported has having destroyed. Later, he indicated work on a children’s piece, but neither of these was the ninth quartet which eventually appeared in 1964. The fragment here was discovered in the Shostakovich archives in 2003, and the booklet notes carry further details on opus numbers and the like. Nobody knows to which of the two attempts the music belongs, but, while it is an interesting selling point for this set the fact remains that this is not Shostakovich at his best. Like other such fragments, such as the Grieg Piano Concerto fragment, you can hear the composer tugging at rather weak ideas and becoming increasingly fed up with the thing. It is very much characteristic of the composer, and carries his unmistakeable rhythmic and melodic fingerprints. What we do have is a fascinating glimpse of Shostakovich as a fallible mortal: into the soup pan which was thrown away because the burnt bits at the bottom were too gnarly to chip off – more trouble than it was worth to revive the thing, better off starting entirely afresh.
Quartets No.9 and
10 are just a little bit older than me, having been written in May and July 1964 respectively. Where some of the earlier quartets seem to reach for the skies in terms of range, both of these quartets often explore lower sonorities and darker colourations, sharing a more restrained emotional world. This restraint is well expressed in the prayer-like second movement
Adagio of the ninth quartet, played with appropriately reserved vibrato by the Alexander players. The typical contradiction of dance and wit in an
Allegretto which expresses anything but joy is excruciatingly well presented, as is the beatifically beautiful
Adagio fourth movement. This is one of Shostakovich’s finest quartet moments, brutally interrupted by ugly pizzicato and empty dissonances: contrast to the
nth degree, the violent passages pointing cruel bony fingers at such sentimentality. The final
Allegro is treated with all the manic passion the music demands: The bizarre dances border on insanity, the cello solo is alarming and invitingly sensual at the same time, and the final pages are both affirmation and a kind of eternal damnation – a nice trick, if you can pull it off.
Quartet No.10 might have opened with a little more of that secretive urgency which seems hidden in the music, but with an
Andante marking the tempo here is nothing less than entirely legitimate. With the
Allegretto furioso the quartet here sees ‘furioso’ more in terms of intensity of accent and ferocity of style rather than in any extremes of tempo, and as the density of notes builds one can hear how this works very well. Another Shostakovich masterpiece, the subsequent passacaglia movement is played with its own inner intensity, but with a simple lightness of tone which draws you in and becomes immediately involving, and moving. This is a crucial moment in the cycle, so I did refer once more to the Fitzwilliam Quartet recording. Here, there are some quite extreme differences, the Fitzwilliam calling out at once with an impassioned cry, a more rhapsodic statement which is more overt and immediate. As the Alexander Quartet began more softly, their even softer moments further in are transparent and precious, like fine silk. The Fitzwilliam players leave themselves more room to maintain that explosive potential, held within that tightly controlled intensity of sound. You pays your money …, and in the end I just find myself wanting both versions for all of those different reasons.
Quartet No.11 was dedicated to the memory of Vassily Shirinsky, for a long time Shostakovich’s friend, and second violinist in the Beethoven Quartet. This started a cycle of four quartets, each dedicated to its members. As might be expected, the mood is a sombre one, and at times the dry presentation of some of the opening thematic material seems to express the emptiness and futility of loss. The sharpness of the contrasts come across like physical blows with the Alexander Quartet, and there is a steely edge to their sound in some sections which can be quite unsettling. There is great beauty, but no comfort in the exquisite dying moments of the conclusion.
Quartet No.12 saw Shostakovich toying with the possibilities of using serial, 12-tone techniques in his composition. While there are some moments in which the tonality and melodic shapes become somewhat ambiguous, Shostakovich remained true to his own personal idiom, and the 12
th Quartet is by no means an atonal or avant-garde experiment. There are some quite complex chromatic workings-out however, and this is one of those pieces which can be harder to make convincing. The Alexander Quartet have few problems, and take the
Allegro opening of the elaborate second movement by the throat. This becomes an emphatic trait in the rest of the movement, with some of the effects reminding me of Shostakovich’s wilder moods, the mad crowd-like scenes in the earlier symphonies 2 and 3.
Quartet No.13 we reach what might be described as one of the most extreme quartets in terms of structure if nothing else. The work is in one continuous movement, taking 18:30 for the Alexander Quartet, 19:10 for the Fitzwilliam. This single, arching form is dark in mood, and while the Alexander players don’t dig quite as deep as the Fitzwilliam Quartet, their impassioned expression of the most febrile moments has quite enough power. There is now a sense of grim purpose in Shostakovich’s writing, an ageing and frustrated fist battering against the transience of time – both for himself, and the 70 year old Vadim Borisovsky to whom the work is dedicated. The reference to Bartók is well made in the booklet notes, and the Alexander Quartet’s rattling taps and sharp pizzicati have potent resonance.
The last of the ‘Beethoven Quartet’ quartets is
No.14, whose bright opening shines like rays of sunshine after the gloom of the 13
th. Dedicated to cellist Sergey Shirinsky, there are several showcase passages for Sandy Wilson, who gets his teeth firmly stuck into Shostakovich’s juicy lines. This is not a cello concerto however, and the quiet emotions of the central
Adagio are initially painted with sober strokes in an extended threnody from the first violin. The third movement also has its minor tonalities, and the relationship between this and some of the austerity in the later symphonies is clear.
Quartet No.13, Shostakovich’s final work in this setting, the
String Quartet No.15 was written while the composer was receiving treatment in hospital. Ill health and the shadow of death had their unmistakeable effect on this last quartet, which is composed in the form of six
Adagio movements, one of which being a
Molto adagio Funeral march. The second movement,
Serenade, is a remarkable statement, with notes which seem to come at the listener like arrows out of the dark. The Alexander players are not above giving these darts a little vibrato here and there, which is other than most renditions I have heard, and certainly different to the needles which are driven under our skin by the Fitzwilliam Quartet. I don’t find this particularly disquieting, and the Alexander Quartet’s playing is excellent in this piece. Their overall impression is however one of deep sadness, where the Fitzwilliams give us the full tragic works: again, a change in emotional perspective which is different, equally valid, and in many ways complementary.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and when it comes to alternative recordings of the Shostakovich quartets I have “had ’em” through the years. Numerous sets have gone by the wayside, most of which having many positive qualities, but none speaking to me in quite the way that the pioneering cycle by the Fitzwilliam Quartet does. The Alexander Quartet doesn’t speak to me in the same way either, and nor would I want them to. We’ve come a long way since the 1970s, and I am open to all-comers in this repertoire, but the strength of expression in the playing
has to match that of the music, no matter how an ensemble views it or makes its choices in terms of phrasing, balance, intonation and the rest. I still wouldn’t want to be without the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s cycle. This cries louder and is sometimes as painful as stripping post-operative plaster from a badly shaved wound, but not everyone will want their Shostakovich quite so raw and excruciating. The Alexander Quartet pulls no punches, but their recorded sound and general resonance tends to be warmer and less grittily challenging. In a direct comparison you may consequently find yourself less directly assaulted by the potency of the music, but with the Alexander Quartet we are also in for the long haul, and these are certainly recordings to which you will be more likely to want to return and explore. Ideally I would also have liked to have had the Emerson Quartet’s cycle for reference. I’ve had a listen to the extracts available on YouTube, and have the impression that the Emersons are more extrovert, with plenty of heart-on-sleeve passion and vibrancy. Listeners who seek a no-compromise “wring ’em dry” approach may wish to explore this as an alternative to the Alexander Quartet, though I am also informed that these are live recordings and include applause. A downside of the Foghorn Classics release is that sequence of novelty foghorns at the end of the discs. This label needs to grow up and ditch that kind of nonsense. I am assured that, thanks in part to my objections, all subsequent FoghornClassics releases (of which there are seven, to date) have been mastered without the hidden trademark Foghorn tracks. They have not been removed from the original Shostakovich masters. The initial production run is still not exhausted so there are still approximately 600 sets to be sold before that can be modified.
I for one am however happy finally to have found a new ‘studio’ cycle of the Shostakovich string quartets which is the equal of the best in the current catalogue, and which both complements and challenges all those old favourites. To mix up a few metaphors, anyone seeking desert-island satisfaction should be able buy these recordings, and draw up the gangplank for a long time to come."
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
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