Classical CD Reviews

The Soviet Experience = Vol. III – SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets 9, 10, 11, 12; WEINBERG: String Quartet No. 6 – Pacifica Q. – Cedille

The Pacifica Quartet’s cycle of Soviet quartets continues with four from Shostakovich and one from Weinberg, passionately performed and brilliantly recorded.

Published on June 18, 2013

The Soviet Experience = Vol. III – SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets 9, 10, 11, 12; WEINBERG: String Quartet No. 6 – Pacifica Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 138, 70:20, 58:25 [4/2/13] (Distr. by Naxos) *****:

There’s a great quote in Wendy Lesser’s excellent book, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets, that describes the composer’s unique relationship with his quartets: “He could toy with cacophony, immerse himself in irony, indulge in all his darkest, least acceptable moods, and not be called unpatriotic, because nobody who cared about such labels [the Soviet censors] was listening to these compositions.” That’s why these works are so great: they represent the unbridled creative powers of one of the twentieth century’s great composers.

This is the third of four releases that pair the complete cycle of the Shostakovich Quartets with other notable Soviet-era composers – previously Miaskovsky’s Quartet No. 13, Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 and here, Weinberg’s Quartet No. 6. The previous two releases in this series have been superb, and this release continues the high level of recording and performing excellence that makes the Pacifica Quartet’s renditions of Shostakovich’s quartets one of the best available today.

The Ninth Quartet (1964) was dedicated to Shostakovich’s new wife Irina Antonovna. Evidently there was joy in his new relationship, but the music doesn’t seem to express it, except, perhaps in its manic energy. It’s a large scale (27 minute) work with two adagios – a pleasant but rather jagged dance and an even slower, bittersweet, angst-ridden ode. Repetition is present throughout the work, prominently in the skitterish nervous Allegretto that separates the slower movements. The final Allegro unleashes a burst of acerbic energy that breaks the spell of a relatively quiet period in the composer’s creative life. The unbearable tension and energy of the finale is brilliantly captured by the Pacifica Quartet.

The pairing of the Shostakovich quartets with Mieczslaw Weinberg’s Sixth Quartet makes sense because both were good friends and supported each other during the harrowing times when the Soviet government rebuked their music. When Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No 10 (1964) and dedicated it to Weinberg, both had finished number nine. A friendly competition between the two composers ensued, as both tried to be the first to complete a tenth quartet. Shostakovich won the contest. One has to search for the warmth of friendship between the two composers in the Tenth Quartet, but it’s manifested in the first movement, where a flowing pensive atmosphere is only briefly interrupted with anxiety. There’s a rhythmic consistency to the quartet that is a unifying force among its emotional vicissitudes. The Allegretto furioso’s dissonance stabs the listener with anger. The sad dirge of the Adagio is an introspective and beautiful aftermath to the furor before it, and the Allegretto that follows contains one of those repetitive themes that the listener can’t forget. It’s partially sardonic, very reflective, ending almost happily.

For over twenty years the Beethoven Quartet had been premiering Shostakovich’s string quartets: they were family to the composer. So when their second violinist, Vasily Shirinsky, shockingly died of a heart attack in 1965, Shostakovich dedicated his Eleventh Quartet to him. In its seven brief movements, there’s little continuity. There’s a fractured quality to the seventeen minute work that implies a darkness that is unfathomable. As Lesser points out, “the Scherzo is neither happy nor light. The Humoresque could not be less amusing.” In the Elegy, the tragic melody probes the depths of the composer’s quiet desperation.

Shostakovich’s heart attack after the premiere of his Eleventh Quartet ushered in the last phase of his life, full of physical traumas (a broken leg, a second heart attack in 1971 and lung cancer) that set the tone for his obsession with death. Yet, Quartet No. 12 emerges as one of his most admired works. There’s a purity of expression combined with a musical sophistication and a diversity of styles and tempos that seamlessly move from one to the other, providing a welcome continuity. Although many talk about the use of twelve-tone writing in the opening cello solo and elsewhere, the composer doesn’t eschew emotion in its use, so few notice it. Two moments exemplify the Pacifica Quartet’s excellence: cellist Brandon Vamos’ deep, rich and soulful solo at 6:31 in the second movement and the powerful pizzicatos of first violinist Simin Ganatra at ll:00 of the same movement. The ghost-like echo of the recording amplifies the drama.

Mieczslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Poland and escaped to Russia in 1939 to escape the Nazi threat and invasion. Although he never formally studied with Shostakovich, his friendship with him was profound: “I count myself as his [Shostakovich] pupil, his flesh and blood,” Weinberg said. His 26 symphonies and 17 string quartets share marches, flowing melodies, and unsettling rhythmic shifts with his friend. The Sixth Quartet (1946) is the progressive musical culmination of his previous three quartets. Its modernism and sophistication earned a banned status from the 1948 ‘anti-formalist’ campaign of the Soviet government. It’s a six-movement work – three faster movements, a slow fugue and two moderate movements. It wasn’t performed until 2007. It has moments of melodic proficiency, dissonant and sophisticated thematic development, a brilliant and exciting scherzo, and a startling transition (Allegro con fuoco) to a contemplative and dissonantly beautiful Adagio. The final two movements are unsettled, with passionate outbursts mollified by moments of ethereal calm, and more frenzied rhythmic outbursts. This is a perfect companion to the Shostakovich quartets, and equal to their musical significance.

The Pacifica Quartet plays these works like the symphonic quartets they are: emotionally expressive, brilliantly executed with a wide, close but reverberant soundstage that communicates the feelings in the music. I can’t wait for their final installation in this series.

—Robert Moon




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