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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet in g minor, Op.57 (1940) [34:42]
String Quartet No.3 in F, Op.73 (1946) [34:31]
Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Belcea Quartet
rec. 2017, Britten Studio, Snape
Reviewed as press preview
ALPHA CLASSICS 360 [69:13]

This recording, the Belcea Quartet’s first in Shostakovich, was made at Snape in June 2017 at the same time as the live concert at which they performed these two works, joined by Piotr Anderszewski for the quintet. The programme also contained Britten’s last quartet, which the Belceas have already given us as part of a complete set of Britten quartets – review review. Amazingly, that splendid 2-CD set has gone the way of all flesh in physical format but remains available to download or stream.

The Alpha booklet reminds us of the quartet’s highly-rated earlier recordings of Beethoven (Alpha 262 – review) Brahms (Alpha 248, with Till Fellner – review) and Berg, Webern and Schoenberg (Alpha 209).

If the music was recorded live – photographs of the concert show a microphone set-up, with the players reading the score from tablets, presumably to avoid extraneous noise – the audience must have been remarkably quiet and there is no applause.

The Belceas bring the same idiomatic interpretations to Shostakovich as they brought to Britten, and they are well supported by Piotr Anderszewski in the quintet, so I have no compunction in comparing them with the best of their rivals – so many of these, as it happens, that it’s hard to choose one or two for comparison.

It’s not so long ago that Geoffrey Molyneux made a Hyperion recording of the Piano Quintet from Marc-André Hamelin and the Takács Quartet a Recording of the Month (CDA67987, with String Quartet No.2 – review). Leslie Wright, though not wishing to forego the Borodin Quartet’s Melodiya recordings, with Richter in the quintet, also liked these performances – review. Unfortunately, those Melodiya recordings are no longer available, even as downloads. Nor is the Borodin Quartet recording with Elisabeth Leonskaja generally to be had in any format, last seen on mid-price Warner Elatus, though Amazon UK are offering a few left-overs.

In the end, despite the virtues of the Hyperion, I settled for my chief comparison with Martin Roscoe and the Sorrel Quartet (CHAN10329, with Quartets Nos. 1 and 12 – DL Roundup February 2010). Ignore the download link to theclassicalshop – it’s now chandos.net where both 16- and 24-bit lossless are available for £9.99.

Neither the Sorrel team nor the new Belcea try to make the Piano Quintet, which opens the Alpha recording, other than a fairly conventional work, much less intense than we tend to think of Shostakovich’s music – after all, it won a Stalin Prize, which didn’t go with anything avant-garde! That’s not, however, to imply that it’s a dull work and both ensembles make it well worth hearing.

Apart from the opening Prelude, where both interpret lento to mean 4:46 – somewhere in the middle of the times on other recordings – the Belceas are slightly slower than the Sorrels. What they lose in impetus in the third movement scherzo, they gain in quality of articulation and power: it is marked allegretto, not allegro, though the composer’s own recording on Doremi is taken at quite a lick and most follow suit, with the Takács Quartet and Roscoe and the Petersburg Quartet with Igor Uryash, on another Hyperion CD (CDA67158), coming in somewhere between Shostakovich and the Belceas.

The old hands of the Borodin Trio, with Jerry Horner and Mimi Zweig (Chandos CHAN8342, with Piano Trio) agree with the Belceas, here and in the Intermezzo in choosing tempi which sound about right from both. Both give the Intermezzo, another lento movement, more time to breathe than the Sorrels and slightly less than the Takács. The 1983 Borodin Trio recording still sells at full price but would surely be more attractive at a lower price.

The finale, too, is accorded suitable weight by all these teams. It’s another allegretto and benefits from not being taken too fast – the Belceas again largely agreeing with the Borodin Trio and the Takács rather than the Sorrels. Overall, the new recording seems to me to share the best qualities of these other versions, not least because of Piotr Anderszewski’s presence: as with all the best performances of this quintet, it’s a miracle that the piano isn’t out of tune by the end of the finale.

How do the Belcea Quartet fare on their own in the post-war Third Quartet? Just as well, I think, perhaps even better. Once again, there is strong competition from complete Shostakovich cycles by the Emerson Quartet, the Mandelring Quartet and the original Borodin Quartet (DG, Audite and Chandos respectively) and other single-disc recordings by the Hagen Quartet and others, but the new recording is their equal in all respects. I see that they impressed our Seen and Heard reviewer Julie Williams back in 2006 with this same quartet at Aldeburgh - review.

The Mandelring Quartet’s recording of Nos. 3, 6 and 8 is also available separately (Audite 92.527). Here again the Belcea Quartet tend to give the music more time than most to expand, by a considerable margin except in the central movement, but there is never any sense that they are marking time. Rather that they are absorbing the mood of a work composed immediately after a war even more cataclysmic for the Soviet Union than any other country. After a deceptively quiet opening, Shostakovich’s mood, as in the ninth symphony, is certainly not one of exultation. Stalin, who had made the composer a hero after the Leningrad symphony, was not pleased.

The third quartet is one work where we have a rare instance of the composer’s reaction to his own music: after a performance by the Beethoven Quartet he was observed to be in tears. I think the Belcea recording would have moved him equally.

All in all, if you are primarily interested in the quartet, I’m happy to let the coupling decide. I like the Mandelring series – see my review of Volume IV – and I think it’s still likely to have the greater appeal if only because it’s available on SACD and No.3 comes with the much-loved Quartet No.8. The Yggdrasil Quartet on BIS are also well worth considering in Nos. 3, 7 and 8, a 1998 recording taken at the time to be the precursor of a series1 but not taken further, presumably because of the strong competition (BIS-CD-913, download from eclassical.com with pdf booklet). Once again, the tempi tend to be a little faster than those of the Belcea Quartet.

Not only those maxed out on credit cards will find the budget-price Alto set of the complete Shostakovich quartets, performed by the eponymous Shostakovich Quartet, well worth investing in. The Russian recordings from the early 1980s may be no match for the opposition but they are by no means bad; the intense performances and the attractive price – around £21 for 5 CDs – amply compensate. The Shostakovich Quartet adopt faster tempi than the Belceas but, while they may be thought to be authoritative, with their link to the composer2, the difference is much greater in theory than in practice. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can compare the Alto and Naïve recordings – and many of the others mentioned – there.

Like all Outhere press previews, this came in mp3 only, but this time at least the bit-rate was the full 320kbs, still not adequate for total confidence but good enough for me to think the CD likely to be very good.

Given just one recording of the third quartet for my Desert Island, I would choose the complete Shostakovich Quartet series, not just because I’m greedy but also for the authority of the performances. I’d be very happy if someone were also to throw in this Belcea recording, especially for the Piano Quintet coupling. It’s well worth considering.

1 It even says so on the cover.

2 Second only to the Beethoven Quartet, who premiered all the quartets.

Brian Wilson





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