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The Soviet Experience, Volume 2: String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and His Contemporaries
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 1-4
Prokofiev: String Quartet No. 2
Pacifica Quartet

Review By Joe Milicia


  The Pacifica Quartet continue their survey of the complete quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, this time going back to the first four, dating from 1938 to 1949. As with last year's Volume 1 (Quartets 5-8 plus one by Nikolai Miaskovsky), Cedille offers us two CDs for the price of one, with a bonus quartet by another important Soviet composer, in this case Sergei Prokofiev's Second. And as before, the power and richness of the Pacifica's performance, combined with the excellence of Cedille's sound and the bonuses of detailed program notes and striking cover art, make this set a must-have, even for those who already have a complete set of the quartets.

It is always worth remembering that Shostakovich had already written his first five symphonies before composing his first full-scale string quartet, and certainly No. 1, in C major and only 15 minutes in length, is in a fully mature style with a number of surprises. The first two movements are both marked Moderato, though they're very different in both structure and mood. Elizabeth Wilson, cellist as well as an author of a book on Shostakovich and editor of his letters, writes in the booklet notes that the first Moderato (in condensed sonata form) "inhabits a world of unclouded skies, and that of a happy, untroubled childhood," but I must say I find it melancholy and often tense from the first bars onward; even the playful cello accompaniment to the second subject doesn't cheer things up for more than a few bars. The second Moderato opens with solo viola stating the theme, a kind of slow march, followed by three variations. Though Wilson finds "simplicity and charm," I hear moments of bleakness and even searing anguish before the viola finally restates the theme, now with pizzicato accompaniment. A whirlwind scherzo and a vigorous Allegro-finale conclude the work.

The Second Quartet, written six years later — after the monumental Eighth Symphony — is a magnificent work on a grand scale, over 35 minutes in length. Both the opening "Overture" (Moderato con moto) and the final "Theme with Variations" are complex, powerful, moving. But the "Recitative and Romance" Adagio is perhaps the most unusual movement, beginning and ending with a series of rhapsodic recitatives for the first violin against sustained chords and "amen" punctuations from the other players; these passionate solos foreshadow the long cadenzas of Shostakovich's violin concertos to come. The "Romance" section, with more unison playing, is haunting, as is the darkly urgent "Valse" scherzo that follows.

Shostakovich had a specific program in mind for his Third Quartet, one involving war and its aftermath, though he never published it. (Wilson's program notes for this quartet are especially valuable for both musical analysis and historical information.) The Allegretto first movement, described by the composer as "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm," shares a musical phrase with the opening movement of the Ninth Symphony (which preceded this 1946 quartet), and has moments of anxiety though not the sardonic edge of the symphony's Allegro. We move though a restless scherzo, a "war" Allegro non troppo (its first notes foreshadowing those of the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony of 1948), a lamenting Adagio, and a finale of shifting moods that returns to the Adagio lament at one point and trails off quietly.

After such dramatic contrasts, the Fourth Quartet (1949) may seem relatively even-tempered: even its tempo markings avoid extremes, with Allegretto for three of the four movements and Andantino for the slow movement (the second). But it is striking for its melancholy beauties, from its subdued opening to its especially tender slow movement, furtive scherzo, and a finale characterized by distinctively Jewish themes at a time when anti-Semitism was official Soviet policy. (Quartets 2, 3 and 4 all have finales that are the longest movement of the work.)

Some listeners may prefer the Shostakovich quartets played with more astringent string sound and more sardonic attitude than the Pacifica Quartet offers. But the warmth, the power, the dynamic contrasts — all captured with vivid realism and clear placement of each instrument by Cedille's team — make this set one of the standout chamber-music releases of the year. This would be so even without the bonus of the Prokofiev Second Quartet, a 22-minute piece dating from 1941-42, in between Shostakovich's first two quartets.

Prokofiev, along with a number of other Soviet composers, had sought refuge from the 1941 German invasion in the Soviet Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkar. Challenged to write music incorporating folk music from the region, Prokofiev produced this 3-movement quartet, a largely joyful work with an especially lovely and varied slow movement. The composer seems to have jumped into the writing of the piece as a holiday lark—something that could never be said about any of Shostakovich's quartets, to put it mildly. But it forms a fascinating contrast with the rest of the set.

Mention must be made of the propaganda poster used for the CD cover. Titled The Red Army Broom Will Completely Sweep Away the Scum, it displays excellent graphic design, high military fashion sense, and a hilarity only partly intentional.





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