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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet no. 2 in D major (1885) [26.51]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVITCH (1906-1975)
String Quartet no.8 in C minor opus 110 (1960) [19.40]
Mieczyław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
String Quartet no.5 in B flat major opus 27 (1945) [25.24]
Dragon Quartet
rec. 2017, Muziekgebouw Fritz Phillips, Eindhoven, Netherlands

It is a salutary experience, when reviewing, to make the effort to listen to a CD more than once. My first, superficial impression was that these accomplished performances nevertheless failed to take wing and that they were technically expert but lacking something in character. Repeated listening has made me regret my first thoughts.

As a programme, this is an interesting one. The Dragon Quartet (Ning Fen and Wang Xiaomao, violins, Zheng Wenxiao, viola, Qin Liwei, cello) have chosen courageously, tackling a very popular quartet, then arguably the greatest of the Shostakovich cycle, before ending with the lesser known Weinberg.

The highlight is, for me, the Weinberg – intense, lyrical and ultimately deeply satisfying. One of the great discoveries for many in the last decade has been the revival of interest in Weinberg. The Fifth Quartet (1945), of 17, is very approachable, deeply melodic yet with underlying toughness and tension. This CD is worth buying for this piece alone. It is a gem and it would be splendid if more performers added it to their repertoire. Cast in five movements, it has elements of the suite but maintains a structural unity. The opening movement, Melodia: Andante sostenuto, begins quite solemnly before the first violins enters with a very lyrical melody. The seriousness is not as grim as some Shostakovich but the melancholy moments – in a dialogue between cello and violin – are unmistakeable. The second movement Humoreska: Andantino, provides a light interlude before the interjection of the Scherzo, the briefest movement, at just over two minutes, but by far the grimmest. The following Improvisation: Lento is a lovely break, reviving the dialogue of cello and violin from the first movement, here beautifully performed. The final Serenata: Moderato con moto recalls the proportions of the first movement. It begins with pizzicatos and strong melodies, but the mood darkens before the work becomes more hesitant and uncertain ahead of drifting away.

The only significant competitor for this recording is the Belgian Quatuor Danel’s superb recording of the complete quartets (CPO 7779132 – six discs), but the new performance loses nothing by comparison and provides an excellent introduction to these works.

The performance of the Shostakovich is very fine, though occasionally I might have liked the attack to be a little grittier. Here the competition is inevitably fiercer, given the canonical status of Shostakovich as a writer of quartets. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy and admire in the wonderfully realised inner detail, as in the ability to maintain momentum in a five-movement piece, in which three movements are slow and the work as a whole emotionally difficult and desolate.

The performance of the Borodin emphasises the lyrical, with moments of great beauty, but I was less moved than elsewhere. The tenderness of the piece is beautifully captured but the tougher aspects seemed less convincing.

Channel’s recording is wonderfully clear and detailed, doing justice to the innate qualities of this young quartet.

Michael Wilkinson

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