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The Soviet Experience - String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his contemporaries - Volume 3
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117 (1964) [27:24]
String Quartet No. 10 in A flat major, Op. 118 (1964) [24:52]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1965/66) [17:47]
String Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133 (1968) [26:11]
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 6 in E minor, Op. 35 (1946) [32:03]
Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra (violin); Sibbi Bernhardsson (violin); Masumi Per Rostad (viola); Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. 9-11 January (9-11), 31 January-1 February, 12-14 May 2011 (12), Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, USA; 2-3 September 2012, Auer Hall, University of Indiana, Bloomington, USA (Weinberg)
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 138 [70:20 + 58:25]

The plan by the Pacifica Quartet to perform the Chicago première of all Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen String Quartets over 10 concerts during the 2010/11 season was the inspiration behind the ‘Soviet Arts Experience’ festival in Chicago. Lead by the University of Chicago in 2010/12 the ‘Soviet Arts Experience’ is an extensive collaborative project uniting a number of Chicago arts institutions. It serves as a platform to showcase art, music, dance and theatre all created by artists under - and in response to - the Politburo of the Soviet Union.
 
In the spirit of the ‘Soviet Arts Experience’ the Pacifica Quartet for Cedille has been releasing a cycle of string quartets from Shostakovich and other twentieth-century Soviet composers. The first volume comprises four Shostakovich 5-8 and the String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, Op. 86by Nikolai Miaskovsky (Myaskovsky). Volume two consists of four Shostakovich 1-4with Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F major,Op. 92. This latest third volume contains Shostakovich 9-12 together with a single work by Mieczysław Weinberg: his String Quartet No. 6 in E minor, Op. 35. The Cedille website shows that the fourth and final volume will give us Shostakovich 13-15 with Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3. This is due out in October 2013.
 
The Pacifica first came to my attention in 2005 with their beautifully played set of the complete Mendelssohn String Quartets. I found their playing to exude style and sophistication and an abundance of character and warm expression. Especially remarkable is the sweetness of tone and the silvery timbre of leader Simin Ganatra. This was recorded in 2002/04 at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois on Cedille CDR 90000 082. On the evidence of a number of critically acclaimed recordings and consistently splendid recitals the Pacifica can be ranked alongside the finest chamber music performers on the international stage.
 
Shostakovich lived all of his adult life under a Soviet-controlled State. Commencing in 1938 he wrote his quartetsover a 36 year period although he actually intended to write 24 in total; one in each separate key. All were premièred soon after their composition with the exception of the Quartet No.4 of 1949 that had to wait four years before it was introduced. It is often said that this cycle reflects the principal events in Shostakovich’s life. The best known and most frequently played is the Eighth Quartet in C minor, Op. 110 from 1960. The quartets contain both numerical and musical references with the Eighth Quartet in particular having numerous musical citations and repeated use of the composer’s personal motif: D-S-C-H.
 
Both the Ninth and the Tenth were composed within a few months of each other in 1964. It is said that these two scores denote the composer’s shift from his central to his final period in quartet writing. No. 9 bears a dedication to the composer’s third wife, Irina Antonovna (née Supinskaya). Comprising five connected movements it was introduced together with No. 10 by the Beethoven Quartet in 1964 at the Moscow Conservatory Malyi Hall. An often disturbing score, it is heavy with anxiety and intensely watchful as if on constant alert. Resilient and forceful, the lengthy Finale:Allegro contains a manic outpouring of disobedience that increases in anger and weight. 

The companion work, No. 10, was composed at the composer’s retreat in the small mountain town of Dilizhan (Dilijan) in the Armenia mountains. Dedicated to his composer friend Mieczysław Weinberg (aka Mieczyslaw Vainberg), the four movement score has a conventional structure even if the third and final movements are connected. Less adventurous than its predecessor the music here is intensely cautious in character with a potent sense of disquiet. Once again the Finale, an Allegretto,is the lengthiest movement and is probably the most significant. With a vice-like grip the Pacifica generates a severe tension that increases in weight and strength, becoming hard to bear. Close to the conclusion the anguish diminishes but it doesn’t feel genuine.

Shostakovich began to write No. 11 in 1965 during a period of recuperation after spending time in a neurological unit in January 1965. Completed in early 1966 in Moscow the score is in seven mainly short linked movements almost in the manner of a suite. I was interested to discover that Quartets 11-14 form a series dedicated to the members of the Beethoven String Quartet. No. 11 bears a dedication to the memory of Shostakovich’s close friend Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, a co-founder of the Beethoven Quartet who had died in Moscow in 1965. The writing of the contrasting movements although feeling fragmented often gives the impression of child-like, naive humour on the surface with a rather astringent undercurrent of despondency and dissonance. I was struck by the sixth movement Elegy which feels like a sort of battle-hardened lament as if too terrified to display true feelings.
 
Cast in two movements, No. 12 was completed in March 1968 and introduced by the Beethoven Quartet at the USSR Composers’ Club, Moscow in the summer of the same year. This score is dedicated to Dmitri Tsïganov, the Quartet’s first violinist. This boldly adventurous score sees Shostakovich using twelve-tone patterns within the prevailing tonality. At nearly twenty-minutes in length the second movement Allegretto is extremely demanding both emotionally and technically, probing the concentration and resilience of the Pacifica who pass the test with flying colours.
 
Polish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg’s friendship with Shostakovich, right from his early days in Moscow in 1943, was close and enduring. Weinberg was to write seventeen quartets including this String Quartet No. 6 composed in 1946 which appeared for a period in 1948 on a Soviet list of banned formalist works. Weinberg dedicated the six movement E minor score to Georgy Sviridova favoured pupil of Shostakovich. My highlights of the E minor Quartet include the opening movement Allegro semplice containing a colourful carnival of emotions with the players shifting easily through the divergent light and weighty textures. Not unlike Shostakovich in character, the central Adagio feels soothing on the surface with a sense of disquiet underneath. The potent final movement Andante maestoso feels aggressively threatening and generates an emotionally disquieting sound-world.
 
One can only imagine the amount of study and preparation necessary for this project from the Pacifica members who provide intelligent and penetrating accounts in very good sound.
 
The excellence of this series makes this the finest collection available of the complete Shostakovich string quartets.  

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich string quartets

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