SACD Number: Artegra ART1002
"The music of Shostakovich speaks to people because he does not force them to learn a new musical language as much 20th Century music does. He translates his ideas into a universal language that everyone understands." – Rosalyra Quartet
Here comes a new release of two of Shostakovich’s greatest works, the String Quartets Nos. 2 and 8, played by an up and coming American quartet, the Rosalyra. They recorded this music in 2000 after twelve years together. Artegra has given the Rosalyra a splendid recorded sound on an SACD hybrid disk. Cause for rejoicing, wouldn’t you say? On its own terms yes, but not in the same ballpark with the Borodin String Quartet's performances from ten years earlier (the complete set on the Virgin label).
I set out to compare the two performances of the Eighth Quartet by listening, pen and paper in hand, to one movement at a time, first from the Rosalyra, then from the Borodin. Now that may be a foolhardy way to start, but hear me out. I enjoyed the first movement by the Rosalyra, with its ravishing sound and fine ensemble playing, with particular praise to the fine cellist, Beth Rapier from the Minnesota Orchestra. The movement ended, I switched to the Borodin, and the pen fell out of my hand. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop listening until all five movements were over. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. This wasn't just a fine performance of this quartet--it was music making of the very highest level. It brought to mind Klemperer conducting Bruckner's Ninth Symphony: absolute mastery of music and instruments, and direct connection with the composer’s spirit.
Remember Renée Zellweger's famous "You got me at hello" line in "Jerry McGuire"? Well the Borodin got me at hello, and for all their merits, the Rosalyra never got me at all.
Let me try to put my finger on some key points. First, the Rosalyra have an uncomfortable habit of growing into a note — they hit the right pitch for sure, but the full conviction increases as the note is held. The Borodin play with precision and authority throughout the length of the note — none of this squeezebox effect. So in some cases the Rosalyra telegraph the climaxes. (This is a more common problem with singers than quartets). Next, the authentic Russian soul is exposed in the Borodin’s playing, but not in the Rosalyra's. Of course the Borodin are Russians, and the Rosalyra are Americans. The Borodin are simply steeped in this music, having been playing these quartets for decades and recording the complete cycle three times. Shostakovich personally supervised their study of each of his quartets. Furthermore, being virtuosi of the highest order they can concentrate fully on interpretation, undistracted by technical difficulties. The Rosalyra, recording this music for the first time, devote more of their efforts to overcoming the sheer technical demands of the writing.
In the opening Largo of the Eighth Quartet, which dates from 1960, the Rosalyra produce some beautiful lyrical playing, integrating the disparate elements into a seamless whole. The short Allegro molto brings a dance macabre with subtle acceleration of pace towards the end to heighten the tension. The Allegretto develops themes from the Allegro. There are well judged dance-like rhythms, but not enough energy in the playing to satisfy fully. It sounds like chamber music, but here the Borodin break all bounds-–they sound like an orchestra! (Indeed this quartet is often played by a string orchestra as the Chamber Symphony). The fourth movement Largo opens with violent strikes that are much more menacing in the Borodin version. In the Rosalyra recording, the octave playing that follows is very affecting beautiful, profound, and when needed, powerful. But when the mood should turn to a patch of utter stillness, I hear too much going on an excess of vibrato, for example. At this point, the Borodin achieve more with less. I also detected some portamento playing from the Rosalyra that I found out of place. The fifth movement Largo is another story. This slow lament contains stretches of fugal writing, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, and I find this passage beautifully played by the Rosalyra. After a brief interval of solo fragments from each of the instruments, a unison finale emerges where each player brings a different tonality to the sound — an effectively disturbing close to the work.
The Second Quartet, composed in 1944, is longer and perhaps less autobiographical than the Eighth. The lack of an authentic Russian voice is more harmful here even than in the Eighth Quartet, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the long second movement Adagio. This movement approaches the form of a violin concerto, but the Rosalyra's "orchestra" lacks the power the Borodin bring to this music, and Sarah Kwak's solo violin does not burn with the intensity of her counterpart, Mikhail Kopelman.
Movement timings by both ensembles are broadly comparable, but the Borodin sound much the livelier, with lightening-sharp reflexes and greater contrast between sections within the movements.
It is of course unfair to put the Rosalyra Quartet up against the towering Borodin String Quartet in this music. I would like to hear more from the Rosalyra, in music where their beautiful sound, close ensemble playing, and considerable energy may be heard to greater advantage.