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The Soviet Experience, Volume 4
String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and His Contemporaries

Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 13-15
Schnittke: String Quartet No. 3
Pacifica Quarteth
Review By Joe Milicia

 

  With this release the Pacifica Quartet completes its traversal of the 15 Shostakovich string quartets, with each of the four 2-CD sets (each 2-for-the-price-of-1) including a quartet by another Soviet-era composer. In this case it's Alfred Schnittke's Third Quartet, a 1983 work that makes allusions to Shostakovich's music and in a number of ways seems as death-haunted as the older composer's final three quartets, which date 1970-74. As with the previous entries in the series, the Pacifica players offer superlative performances, well captured by Cedille's talented engineers. (And as before, we get an interesting Soviet-era poster for the cover.)

One valuable bonus of the Cedille sets has been the booklet essays, each by a different Shostakovich or Soviet-music scholar. Volume 4's author is Gerald McBurney, who opens with a commentary on artists' "late styles" and goes on to offer interpretations based not only on the tonal and thematic complexities of Shostakovich's (and Schnittke's) quartets but their allusiveness, almost as if each quartet contained a web of secret code referring, for example, to the Boris Godunov scene of the czar's death, or a passage in Shostakovich's own Sixth Symphony, or even the name of one of the Beethoven Quartet players who premiered these works. Clearly these are works that reward many repeated listenings for their musical connections both internal and external.

I hasten to add, for those who are new to these quartets, that the music is far from purely intellectual: there is plenty of raw emotional power in each work, brought out wrenchingly by the Pacifica's performances. Their recordings of the earlier quartets were notable for the warmth and richness of their sound (not typical adjectives for performances of Shostakovich's quartets), but I found an increased fierceness in the latest set: an acid edge that cuts through some of what might be interpreted as the despairing gloom of a number of passages.

Each quartet has its own distinctive features. The 13th is a single19-minute arc of slow-fast-slow played without pause, punctuated at times with sounds of the stick of the bow tapped on the rounded underside of the instrument. The 14th is in three separate movements, Allegretto-Adagio-Allegretto, though with some shifts of tempo that complicate the overall structure. The 15th consists, astonishingly, of six Adagio movements, each casting its own spell, and played without pause. (The only other long sequence of slow movements I can think of is Haydn's Seven Last Words on the Cross, composed for orchestra but adapted for string quartet; Shostakovich must have had that example in mind, even if there are no allusions to the music itself.) Each quartet features extended solos for one or more of the four players, and these are performed searingly by the Pacifica members.

Schnittke was younger than Shostakovich by 13 years but seems a generation apart in his chameleonic musical styles. In his works allusions to musical styles of the past sometimes become so prominent that he might best be thought of as a postmodernist (in contrast to Shostakovich's modernism): the very fabric of some of his music is a weave or pastiche of different styles, often jarringly combined. His Third Quartet opens with what sounds like Renaissance music, and is in fact derived from Orlando di Lasso's Stabat Mater; this is followed by a near quotation of the theme from Beethoven's Grosse Fuge for string quartet, and then a section playing with the notes D-Eb-C-B, Shostakovich's "D.Sch." signature motto used in his Tenth Symphony and many other places. All this material is interwoven in the rest of the movement. The second movement, a scherzo of sorts, features a minor-key agitato theme that could have come from the Classical era but is disrupted or pursued by violent outbursts of more expressionistic music. The finale has elements of a funeral march. I haven't made comparisons with other performances, but can say that the Pacifica are convincing and indeed stunning in their virtuosity.

I can't say that I will listen to this set as often as to the earlier Pacifica sets of both Shostakovich and the companion quartets by Miaskovsky, Prokofiev and Weinberg, any more than I'd throw on a CD of the Seven Last Words very often for easy listening; but I do give highest recommendation to all four 2-CD sets. There are some classic performances of the Shostakovich quartets available at bargain prices, but the Pacifica's interpretations can stand alongside them, and none has been better recorded, capturing both the beauty and what one might almost call the violence of the string sounds Shostakovich sometimes calls for.

 

 

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