Classical CD Reviews
String Quartets by SHOSTAKOVICH and His Contemporaries = Pacifica String Q. – Cedille
Published on November 25, 2011
String Quartets by SHOSTAKOVICH and His Contemporaries = SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 82; String Quartet No. 6 in G Major, Op. 101; String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108; String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110; MIASKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, Op. 86 – Pacifica String Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 127 (2 CDs) 57:35; 60:05 [Distr. By Naxos] ****:
The Pacifica Quartet address the more intimate side of Dimitri Shostakovich, particularly his quartets composed in the fateful years in the Soviet Union, 1952-1960. In 1948, Shostakovich, along with Prokofiev and Miaskovsky, had been excoriated as “formalists” incapable of direct communication with “the people.” Shostakovich, however, employed the string quartet medium as means of personal expression relatively unhampered by “political correctness.”
The 1952 Quartet No. 5, dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet, is set in three continuous movements that freely express conflict and eventual resolution. The secondary melody of the opening Allegro non troppo sounds like songful Dvorak. Shostakovich quotes a lyrical tune from a Clarinet Trio by his composition student Galina Ustvolskaya, a work not published until 1970. The viola joins the violin for the beginning of the Andante, a weirdly disembodied sound in two octaves that evolves into what one commentator calls “an oasis of tenderness” permeated like the Strauss Ein Heldenleben with allusions to other works, familiar or repressed by the authorities. The last movement reveals the motto DSCH that functions like BACH or SCHA in Bach and Schumann, respectively, as self-identifying anagrams. Waltzes and chromatic scales infiltrate this finale, as they had the first movement. The theme provided by Galina Ustvolskaya serves as an intermediary to the conflicting energies of the development, as the woman herself helped mitigate the composer’s anxious hours of the times.
The String Quartet No. 6 (1956) projects an altogether happier ethos, composed during Shostakovich’s initially joyous second marriage to Margarita Kainova. Shostakovich returns to the four-movement format and a non-confrontational affect. Repeated D’s lead to a lyrical theme in G Major, but beneath the surface placidity and conventionality lie undercurrents of personal rebellion and angst, like the appearance of the second theme in the key of E-flat Minor. The recapitulation offers the various themes in reverse, a technique Shostakovich found to his musical taste consistently. The moody Moderato con moto evolves as a rondo that features a concertante element for the upper strings and viola. The Pacifica Quartet bestow a lovely patina of quiet anguish and poignant beauty on this music. The third movement, Lento, proceeds as a passacaglia in variations, likely influenced by Shostakovich’s fascination with Bartok. Its tight structure and intense inwardness bespeak a rapt spirit, one not wonted to reveal his deepest thoughts, except to the initiated. The last movement opens with an inversion of the first movement’s primary theme, Shostakovich’s concession to an absorbing cyclicism that would embrace much of his music. The triple meter becomes four-square and mock-militant, even employing the bass line of the passacaglia and then brandishing the DSCH motto of the composer’s “tag” or musical persona. The contrapuntal writing becomes quite dense, but it breaks off to allow something like more whimsical spirits to reign, despite the final tug of war between the keys of B and the tonic G.
The under-rated Seventh Quartet (1960) lasts only twelve minutes via the Pacifica reading, and its cyclical nature makes it condensed to a degree worthy of both Beethoven and Bartok. The first movement Allegretto proceeds as a sonatina with a pizzicato waltz at its center. The lightness of the scoring well conceals deep ironies in its character. The second movement has violin Simin Ganatra play against cello Brandon Vamos, almost a parody of the Kodaly Duo. The music is dedicated to the composer’s now-dead first wife, Nina Vasilevna Shostakovich, and the lacunae in the scoring may bespeak her absence. Quotations from the Fifth Symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk abound, expressions of defiance. Marked by a vehement fugue of exceptional intensity, this music has the Pacifica in full throttle, the contrapuntal dissonances clearly pointed at Bartok as a model of compressed fury. The fugue breaks off into a waltz, although the colors remain dark. The attacks in the pizzicati and tripping motifs gain a decided edginess, and the work ends in an equivocal mood, neither fair nor foul.
Shostakovich composed the Eighth Quartet in C Minor (1960) in a mere three days and dedicated it “To the Victims of Fascism and War.” Inspired by the composer’s tour of the destroyed Dresden from WW II, the music actually means to be a threnody for the composer himself, a kind of self-proclaimed eulogy, especially as he felt forced to capitulate on the issue of joining the Communist Party. The five movements nod to Beethoven’s late style and to Bartok’s idiosyncratic appropriation of that style. The DSCH motif serves as a reminder to Shostakovich of his “true self,” often buried in a sea of troubles. The second movement, Allegro molto, explodes with fury, quoting a Jewish theme from the finale of the Piano Trio No. 2. The violin segues to the third movement waltz figure, while parodic quotes from the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat punctuate the woven, slightly drunken melodic line. A pedal point and fortissimo chords open the fourth movement Largo, which quotes Revolutionary songs and from the suppressed opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The C Minor Quartet closes with a second Largo, this time a learned fugue utilizing the forlorn DSCH motif in plain sight.
Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950) suffered the humiliation of the notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948, which proclaimed Miaskovsky a proponent of “anti-populist tendencies.” His 1950 Quartet No. 13 in A Minor follows traditional pathways in its four movements. The melancholy first theme of the opening Moderato leads to a fugal treatment of the secondary tune. The viola part becomes quite active and finds Masumi Per Rostad in resonant form, especially in dialogue with cello, Brandon Vamos. The warm lyricism of the writing emerges, and here the Pacifica imparts an old-world charm into Miaskovsky’s closing page. Marked Presto fantastico, the second movement contests duple and triple meters, the cello quite sawing away along with the first violin. The main theme asks the two violins to double stop while the bass plucks a pizzicato accompaniment under an a chromatic, diaphanous blend of upper voices. The da capo shimmers and jostles the ear, the musical blend reminiscent of the scherzo in Borodin’s D Major Quartet. In A Major, the Andante invokes a modal and angular chorale as its vocally warm starting point. Miaskovsky in this movement demonstrates his fluency in the use of chromatic modulations and diversity of instrumental colors. An abundance of invention marks the Molto vivo, energico finale, a rondo in rustic colors in the manner of Smetana. Double stops and pizzicati resound in duple and triple rhythmic patterns that quite beguile the ear. The virile imagination of the elder Miaskovsky certainly has the undivided attention of the Pacifica members, as it will likely captivate a host of new believers via this stunning recording made 14-15 May 2011 in the Foellinger Great Hall, Krannett Center, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.