Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet No. 3,
String Quartet No. 8,
Valentin Berlinsky Qrt
AVIE 2273 (70:39)
The rise in Shostakovich’s reputation during the course of my lifetime has been dramatic indeed. Once viewed with suspicion as the supposed musical mouthpiece of Soviet communism, and contemptuously dismissed by the dogmatists of the avant-garde, he is today
widely and I think justly regarded as one of the truly great composers of the 20th century. Although he surrendered to pressure from the regime in order to save his own skin, as most of us would have done in similar circumstances, he quickly returned to pursuit of his own vision when the pressure relaxed. He developed an unmistakable personal style and wrote music that is complex but accessible, and deeply expressive. He defied the watchdogs of Soviet musical culture by failing repeatedly to produce what they expected of him, instead coming up with something completely different. His music is predominantly dark and pessimistic in character, rejecting the positive and optimistic outlook demanded by Socialist Realism. More than any other composer, he gave musical expression to the agonies through which his country passed during his lifetime.
This release is the second installment in the Valentin Berlinsky Quartet’s series coupling quartets by Shostakovich and Beethoven. The juxtaposition implies a strong endorsement of Shostakovich’s stature and a recognition that his 15 string quartets represent a major contribution to the quartet literature. This Zurich-based ensemble is named after the long-time cellist of the Borodin Quartet, for many years one of the most prominent exponents of Shostakovich’s works. The five-movement Third Quartet, written in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of wartime carnage, opens with an unexpectedly light-hearted
movement, although as is usual with Shostakovich, there are shadows and an underlying uneasiness. In the Berlinsky recording and seven other performances available for comparison, there isn’t much difference in the timings for this movement, except for that of the Manhattan Quartet (ESS.A.Y), which alone omits the exposition repeat. Nonetheless, the Berlinsky rendition seems less driven than that of the Emerson Quartet (DG), which serves to underline the ambivalent, enigmatic quality of the movement. Rich and mellow tonal qualities also distinguish this ensemble from its competitors here. As in the Eighth Symphony of 1943, although on a smaller scale, the opening movement is followed by two martial movements, the second and more violent of which also anticipates the Scherzo of the Tenth Symphony of 1953. In the second movement, the Berlinsky Quartet adopts a resolute tempo that is midway between the Emerson’s headlong approach and the very deliberate one of the Jerusalem Quartet (EMI) but is consistent with the
marking and certainly propulsive enough. In the succeeding
, by comparison to the Emerson account or those of the St. Petersburg Quartet (Hyperion and Sony), the Berlinsky rendition relies a bit less on forward pressure and more on tonal weight and forceful stresses to deliver a powerful, almost terrifying message. The Berlinsky players draw out the grief stricken
more than any of their competitors except for the leaner-toned Pacifica Quartet (Çedille), but they have no difficulty sustaining continuity at this tempo and play with passionate anguish or chilling stillness and repose as needed. The Finale, again marked
, is the longest of the five movements. Starting out in a bittersweet, enigmatic vein, it works itself into an anguished climax, in which a wrenching lament from the
is brought back in a more forceful guise, before fading out eerily into silence. The Berlinsky Quartet takes a noticeably more deliberate approach to this movement than any of the alternatives mentioned here, exceeding the timing of its nearest challenger, the Taneyev Quartet (Leningrad Masters), by some 44 seconds. As in the first movement, the uneasiness and ambivalence of the music is emphasized, until the performance builds to great passion and intensity in the climax. The fadeout at the end is well controlled. Overall, the Berlinsky rendition at least holds its own with any of the others in my experience.
The Berlinsky performance of the second of Beethoven’s “Rasumovsky” quartets is unfortunately less successful. The first movement, taken at a rapid tempo, seems breathless, rhythmically flat, and sometimes lacking in clear articulation. Also missing is the kind of integrated playing and attentive shaping supplied by the Emerson and Alban Berg quartets (DG and EMI respectively). Unlike those ensembles, the Berlinsky takes the unusual second repeat, as do the Endellion and Cleveland quartets (Warner and Telarc) at a less hectic tempo. The slow movement is appropriately paced but earthbound, lacking in depth of feeling. With similar pacing, the Cleveland, Emerson, and Alban Berg are more eloquent and expressive. The last two movements are very fast and vigorous in the Berlinsky rendering, but the Berg and Cleveland ensembles, comparably headlong, are more tightly controlled and more brilliant as well.
The recorded sound in the Shostakovich is exemplary, with excellent frequency balance and precise placement of the instruments within a realistically spacious soundstage. For some reason, the sound seems a bit less focused in the Beethoven. Since both works were recorded in the same venue over a three-day period in 2012, I must attribute this discrepancy to the playing rather than the engineering.
On the basis of its excellent Shostakovich performance, the Valentin Berlinsky Quartet appears to be an ensemble of great potential. I can recommend this release for its distinctive take on that powerful work, despite my disappointment with the accompanying Beethoven performance, which, I must acknowledge, was enthusiastically praised by a reviewer in another publication.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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