Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 1–15. Piano Quintet
Two Pieces for String Octet
Borodin Str Qrt;
Sviatoslav Richter (pn);
Prokofiev Str Qrt
MELODIYA 10 0 1077 (6 CDs: 430:36)
The ongoing, often vociferous, critical and scholarly debate over the meaning of Shostakovich’s music, primarily its
relationship to the oppressive Stalinist regime and subsequent Cold War policies that existed throughout his lifetime up to his death in 1975, will likely never subside. Whatever feelings the composer, an intensely shy and secretive person, concealed in his scores are cloaked within a private language of intervals, keys, and references, and the code, with a few still speculative exceptions, has not yet been cracked. Nevertheless, it appears obvious that Shostakovich used his symphonies as vehicles of public expression, while the string quartets—chronicling, at various points, his introspection, melancholy, satiric humor, and full-out anger—are more personal utterances, wrapped in exceedingly unorthodox forms. (It’s interesting to note that after his Haydnesque first venture into the string quartet idiom, only four of the remaining 14 used the “traditional” four-movement format.) For all their hidden agendas, these quartets are full of passion and drama, tension and vulnerability.
And so, as the most important and impressive cycle of string quartets since Beethoven’s, it’s understandable why ensembles have been drawn to them—there are nearly two dozen complete recordings available or in progress, not to mention all of the individual quartet recordings over the last few decades. There have, of course, been many special performances that have brought out significant if differing details, and I have covered a number of these in the pages of
. But if I were forced to choose just one complete version, one which projects a most convincing approach to Shostakovich’s personal style and, necessarily, sustains it throughout the entire cycle, it would be this one. Please note: This newly reissued set is of the 1978–83 recordings by the
Borodin Quartet, previously available in the U.S. separately and collected on EMI, not the worthwhile but incomplete earlier performances reissued on Chandos by the group’s first incarnation (see
27:1), nor the five quartets recorded in 1990 by the same personnel as here.
In many of my previous reviews I have expressed a preference for performances that convey what I feel to be the spirit, and not just the letter, of these scores—something that the Borodins have done longer, and better, than anyone else, including the widely acclaimed, albeit more objective, Fitzwilliam and Emerson Quartets. What they bring to this music is a remarkable commitment and empathy based upon what I take to be an intimate understanding of Shostakovich’s sources, musical and emotional—that is, a familiarity with the style of the folk melodies and classical intimations the composer occasionally adapts to his own methods, and the experience of having lived through many of the same conditions in Soviet Russia. It’s hard, if not impossible, to isolate such extra-musical circumstances in specific musical details; suffice it to say that what the Borodin Quartet does best is to clarify and simultaneously intensify melodic or rhythmic nuances while projecting a sense of the Big Picture—for example, by emphasizing a particular lilt as well as a smidge of irony in the frequent dance-like episodes, or using their impressive tonal resources to coat a crucial phrase with a corrosive edge, an ominous chill, or a comforting (however momentary) warmth, while allowing the music to breathe and flow according to the composer’s design.
These are the most consistently persuasive performances of this music I know, and they remind me of a description the literary critic Richard Sewall used to explain why Emily Dickinson’s poetry was so profound. The Borodin Quartet has the ability, in interpreting Shostakovich’s music, to “look very deep, and see very clear.”
FANFARE: Art Lange
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