Sooner or later, most contributors to this journal are bound to receive letters from disgruntled readers and the occasional colleague complaining about what they perceive to be an unfairly negative review, or even an unfairly positive one. But I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been chided by a colleague as I was by Peter J. RabinowitzRead more in Fanfare 35:4 for submitting an enthusiastic review that wasn’t enthusiastic enough. In a second-opinion follow-up to my review of Volume 1 of the Pacifica Quartet’s new Shostakovich cycle, Rabinowitz took exception to my “Goldilocks” analogy in which I stated that the Pacifica’s performances struck me as “j-u-s-t right.”
Although I never got to review the Pacifica’s complete Mendelssohn quartets, they showed up on a couple of Want Lists, and in a number of reviews of Mendelssohn quartet recordings by other ensembles, I’ve repeatedly singled out the Pacifica’s version as equaling, if not surpassing, the Emerson’s set. So, as a rejoinder to Rabinowitz, let me just say for the record that I agree with him that the Pacifica’s Shostakovich is not “middle of the road,” and by “j-u-s-t right” I didn’t mean to imply that the ensemble’s performances straddled the fence or clung to the median strip running down the center of the highway. There is no better string quartet on the scene today than the Pacifica. In terms of technical precision and keenness of musical insight, the Pacifica is the true inheritor of the Emerson’s crown and, in warmth of tone and emotional responsiveness, I often find the Pacifica superior to the Emerson.
That said, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that once the Pacifica has completed its Shostakovich cycle it will be among the top two or three to have, those others being the aforesaid Emerson and what some consider to be the definitive Fitzwilliam. With this release of Volume 2, the Pacifica has now crossed the ocean more than halfway. Eight of the 15 quartets have now been committed to disc—Nos. 5–8 in Volume 1, and now Nos. 1–4 here. And as in the previous volume, the MO is to include another roughly contemporaneous string quartet by another Russian composer. In Volume 1 it was Miaskovsky; here it’s Prokofiev.
Shostakovich’s quartets span a period of 36 years; the first was written in 1938, the last in 1974. The four quartets heard here are the composer’s earliest, though in the overall chronology of his works, you could say that he got a relatively late start in the quartet-writing business. He’d already written his first five symphonies by 1937, before his first quartet was even a twinkle in his ear.
As he is quoted in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, it was the composer’s intention to write 24 quartets following a cyclic progression of major and minor keys. Unlike Bach, however, who proceeded through the keys by semitone, or Chopin, who in his 24 preludes proceeded via the Circle of Fifths, Shostakovich adopted a unique scheme of his own. He proceeds—at least in the 15 quartets he managed to write—more or less by submediants (by sixths). The first six quartets, all in major, follow the pattern. C, A, F, D, B?, G—A being a sixth above C, F being a sixth above A, and so on. But then something goes askew with the plan. No. 7 should have been in E?, but instead Shostakovich throws a monkeywrench into the works by giving us a quartet in F?-Minor. No. 8 returns to the pattern with C Minor, which would have been the submediant of No. 7 if No. 7 had followed the plan and been in E?. Another deviation comes with No. 10, which is also in the “wrong” key from what it should be, but the pattern resumes once again with No. 11.
In a fascinating analysis of the quartets (quartets.de/index.html), one Ian Strachan explains that “the insertion of F?-Minor and the effective rotation of E? sharp major [sic] and C minor were done so that quartet number nine would be written in E?-Major and quartet number 16 in B Major. By doing so Shostakovich would ensure that his initials (DSCH) were used as the keys in quartets whose number are a perfect square (D Major: quartet number four or 2 squared; S, in the German notation or E?-Major in the English: quartet number nine or 3 squared; C Major: quartet number one or 1 squared; and H or B Major in the English notation as quartet number 16, or 4 squared). So it seems that Shostakovich, a tonal composer who delighted in keeping detailed numerical records of football scores, indulged in numerical as well as musical ciphers.”
In a way, I suppose, this tends to reinforce something I’ve said before about Shostakovich’s quartets, not that they’re all alike, but that there’s a prevailing sense of continuity in the musical discourse that makes them seem like one cogent and coherent conversation from beginning to end, which, of course, could be advanced as an argument for listening to them in order. Still, the above bit of clever mathematical manipulation presumes the existence of a 16th which was never written, as well as the continuation of the pattern all the way through to a nonexistent final 24th quartet. You’ve got to love stuff like this; it can be so earnest in its pursuit of the Delphic. Or, as the oracle once said, “Pi are square, cake are round.”
Nonetheless, I would urge you to visit the website because it goes way beyond the tortured math I’ve touched on here. It also provides a detailed history, description, and analysis of every single quartet.
The First Quartet, for the most part, is a bouncy, one might almost say joyful, thing. The coruscating harmonies, rhythmic ostinatos, and pervasive gloom we often associate with Shostakovich’s music are saved for the later quartets.
The austerity and menace begin to creep in as early as the Second Quartet. The Soviet victory over Hitler’s army was near in the early fall of 1944 when Shostakovich composed the work, practically in the same breath as his famous E-Minor Piano Trio, but he wasn’t in a celebratory mood. There’s a Russianness or East European Jewishness to the melodic and harmonic material, which often sounds like it’s derived from folk songs and klezmer dances soured and bent out of shape by Shostakovich’s parodying techniques.
Superficially, the Third Quartet (1946) bears some resemblance to the First Quartet in its opening swagger and jaunty Haydnesque character, but it’s a cheerfulness colored by disappointment and disillusion. The piece was written on the eve that ushered in the dark days of the Zhdanov denouncement and the targeting of Soviet artists and intellectuals. Shostakovich’s state of mind is reflected in the fact that the Third Quartet is the only work he wrote during this year.
The Fourth Quartet (1949) ran into resistance for other reasons and of a different sort. Characterized as another of his “Jewish” works—though not Jewish, Shostakovich was drawn to Jewish musical and cultural themes throughout his life—the Fourth Quartet appeared at exactly the time that the Cold War was heating up, anti-Semitism was once again on the rise (if it had ever abated), and Stalin was gleefully engaged in another round of persecution and purges. The horror is made manifest in the leering danse macabre of the concluding Allegretto, one of the standout movements in the entire quartet cycle.
For Prokofiev the string quartet plays a far less central role in his output; he wrote only two, the first in 1930, and the second, included in the present set, in 1941. Writing string quartets was not a particularly self-motivated or self-fulfilling effort for him, and this, his second go at the medium, was apparently not even his idea. Having been sent to a Soviet outpost presumed safe from Germany’s invading forces, Prokofiev was encouraged to write a string quartet based on the Kabardino-Balkar folk themes common to the North Caucasus region to which he and other artists had been evacuated. He seems to have warmed to the idea, producing a fine example of abstract music inspired by authentic folk elements.
In every single movement of Shostakovich’s quartets and in the Prokofiev, the Pacifica Quartet penetrates to the very heart and soul of the music. What stands out—matters of technical precision and ensemble blending and balance are givens—is the way in which the players probe for and reveal amazing details even in passages that, superficially, may seem to present relatively flat surfaces unlikely to yield much in the way of dimensionality, such as the Adagio of the Third Quartet. But under inspection of the Pacifica’s microscope, the music displays a topography filled with hidden peaks and valleys. It’s this intellectual curiosity to explore, wedded to largesse of emotional expressivity that makes these performances special.
I hope Rabinowitz takes this to be the fervently enthusiastic recommendation intended.
Equals Live PerformanceMay 30, 2012By John E. (Chicago, IL)See All My Reviews"Last year Pacifica performed a complete cycle of the quartets at Ganz Hall in Chicago. These recordings capture the intensity and beeauty of thos performances."Report Abuse