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The Soviet Experience, Volume 3: String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and His Contemporaries
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 9 - 12
Weinberg: String Quartet No. 6
Pacifica Quartet

Review By Joe Milicia


  The third installment of Cedille's Shostakovich series with the Pacifica Quartet offers us what we have come to expect: revelatory performances of Shostakovich quartets in superb sound, with the bonus of another Soviet-era quartet for comparison. In this case it's the Sixth of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 17 quartets: an especially fascinating pairing, since the two composers were close friends for 30 years and influenced one another's music. David Fanning, a scholar of both composers, argues in Cedille's lengthy, interesting booklet essay that "a number of specific gestures in Shostakovich's quartets are direct borrowings from Weinberg.

The Shostakovich quartets at hand date from 1964 to 1968, and except for No. 10, which has a four-movement design typical for the composer — moody Andante, frantic scherzo, tragic Adagio and emotionally ambivalent Allegretto finale — each is quite distinctive in structure. No. 9 has four relatively short movements leading up to a long, complex finale. No. 11, though only 17 minutes long, is in seven short continuous movements, labeled Introduction, Scherzo, Recitative, Etude, Humoresque, Elegy and Finale, while No. 12, 26 minutes long, is in only two movements, a 7-minute Moderato and 19-minute Allegretto. Each quartet has far too many remarkable moments to single out here, but it's worth noting that all of them display emotional extremes, from bleak passages that seem to meander (though musical motifs connect them to other movements) to outbursts of chaotic frenzy. The Pacifica Quartet once again prove to be compelling interpreters, with their warmth of tone and alertness to drops and rises of emotional temperature, as well as to the quartets' internal dramas of solo players striking out from the ensemble (a lamenting cello, a strident pizzicato first violin against the arco others) and becoming re-absorbed in the whole.

Weinberg's Sixth Quartet, in six continuous movements, lasting 32 minutes, was written earlier, in 1946, but published only in 1979 and not performed until 2007. Although there are ‘Shostakovichian" moments, the writing is distinctively different from the Russian composer's, with (to my ears) less astringency and starkness--a somewhat more traditional sense of how players in a string quartet interact or "harmonize" (in the broader sense) with one another. It's a gripping, memorable work, given a kind of tragic grandeur by the Pacifica performance. For those of us with little familiarity with the Polish-Jewish composer's output other than a couple of the 22 symphonies, it tantalizingly suggests that there is a whole world of significant music waiting to be discovered. (I haven't heard the Danel Quartet's recordings of all the quartets ON menu header the CPO label.)

As with the previous discs in the series (all priced 2-CDs-for-1), the Pacifica Quartet is given rich sound with each voice distinctively placed and yet effectively blended. Once again Cedille's design staff have come up with a terrific example of Soviet poster art for the cover: in this case, a worker stretching his arm out straight so that it becomes both a dam whose spillways pour out water and a row of dump trucks releasing their loads in unison.





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