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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

The Soviet Experience

  • Dmitri Shostakovich:
  • String Quartet #1 in C Major, Op. 49
  • String Quartet #2 in A Major, Op. 68
  • String Quartet #3 in F Major, Op. 73
  • String Quartet #4 in D Major, Op. 83
  • String Quartet #5 in B Flat Major, Op. 92
  • String Quartet #6 in G Major, Op. 101
  • String Quartet #7 in F Sharp minor, Op. 108
  • String Quartet #8 in C minor, Op. 110
  • String Quartet #9 in E Flat Major, Op. 117
  • String Quartet #10 in A Flat Major, Op. 118
  • String Quartet #11 in F minor, Op. 122
  • String Quartet #12 in D Flat Major, Op. 133
  • String Quartet #13 in B Flat minor, Op. 138
  • String Quartet #14 in F Sharp Major, Op. 142
  • String Quartet #15 in E Flat minor, Op. 144
  • Alfred Schnittke: String Quartet #3
  • Serge Prokofieff: String Quartet #2 in F Major, Op. 92
  • Mieczysław Weinberg: String Quartet #6 in E minor, Op. 35
  • Nicolai Myaskovsky: String Quartet #13 in A minor, Op. 86
Pacifica Quartet
Cedille Records CDR90001003 8CDs
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Shostakovich had – at best – to dissemble. He often had to obfuscate, and more pressingly had to hide his reactions to the brutalities of the Soviet régimes during his lifetime. It's generally accepted that what he couldn't or wouldn't (or felt he shouldn't) say in his symphonies was nearer the surface in his chamber music – in particular the cycle of 15 string quartets, the same number as his symphonies.

Here on Cedille is a collection by the Illinois-based Pacifica Quartet (Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin; Simin Ganatra, violin; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello) of eight CDs containing not only all of Shostakovich's string quartets; but also numbers 13, 2, 6 and 3 by contemporaries Miaskovsky, Prokoviev, Weinberg and Schnittke respectively under the global title, "The Soviet experience". Although somewhat arbitrary, the inclusion of these four other works goes some way towards painting a vivid picture of the edge on which Soviet composers lived and worked throughout the middle of the last century (Prokoviev was back in the USSR by 1941, when his second string quartet was first performed by the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow).

It's one of several achievements by the Pacificas, though, that they strike an almost perfect balance between exposing, developing and ultimately privileging those aspects of the quartets by Shostakovich (and his contemporaries) which are intimate, personal, discrete and hence particular to the time and circumstances under which they were written, on the one hand. And on the other, the kind of essences and universal appeal of the medium, and these five composers' expression of it over a period of of nearly half a century (Shostakovich's first was written in 1938; Schnittke's third in 1983) more generally. In other words, the Pacifica Quartet has produced both a statement that is a testament to the Twentieth Century Soviet string quartet as a phenomenon; and well over eight hours of profound, engaging music that stands in its own right. And is worthy of our attention because it is music, not because it comments – albeit implicitly – on the world.

It's this perhaps more thoughtful examination of the soul, rather than the history, of the medium which might explain why the quartets are not presented strictly chronologically. Though roughly so. The second/last work on the second CD of each of the four volume's two-CD pairs is devoted to works by Miaskovsky, Prokoviev, Weinberg and Schnittke, which means that the dates of composition are 1950, 1941, 1946 and 1983 respectively.

In movement after movement the Pacificas seem to be playing because they understand the music itself, rather than because they wish to tell a story about the historical or social context to the exclusion of the music's innate beauty, direction, and power to speak to us very directly. Indeed, such movements as the Sixth's moderato con moto [CD.1:1 tr.5] have an almost conversational feel; a dialog. The following lyrical, achingly beautiful lento is made to sound – perhaps as it should – like a personal appeal in the form of a lament after a loss. In fact Shostakovich's wife, Nina, had died not long before the work was written, in December 1954.

Again, the Pacificas draw a thin but effective line between a spurious mapping of autobiography onto the music; and allowing the composer's mood, state of mind and heart, and reaction to events public and private, to influence the nature of the music. One is reminded, perhaps, of the similar judgement necessary to achieve a plausible balance in the music of Schumann's later years. It must be played objectively; yet without neutrality. In the end this comes down to sensitivity and an empathy with the idiom. Command of the pace, tempi, phrasing and – above all – a sense of the music's direction are all vital. Climaxes and the releases of tension are all for a purpose. Melancholy textures and harmonies are generated by foregoing passages in movements; not because we think that Shostakovich must have been reacting to terror, melancholy or even with sprigs of hope.

The Pacificas are also aware of two potentially deadening twin (and opposite) temptations. Neither do they try to find and emphasize the common factors in these composers' string quartets… angst; a hurried tension suggesting that life was so bad that it had better be wrested from the Soviet system and lived at all costs; a guache balance between the novel, the modern and the acceptable. Nor do they overplay the otherwise valid individualism that does legitimately distinguish the quartets of Shostakovich and his contemporaries, one from another.

Shostakovich did travel a discernible journey in the 36 years between his first and last quartets (1938 and 1974). Each of the other four composers' quartets presented here also occupies a defined place in their (wider) output. Yet the musicians have successfully approached all the music under the rubric of the "Soviet Experience" for those who want the wider historical and cultural context. But they also play each quartet, each movement, as music in its own right and music which speaks for itself with an accomplished balance between urgency and potency.

Pleasingly, the full range of emotions on which Shostakovich drew to achieve the impact and memorability of his string quartets is recognized by the players. Humor, pathos, bathos, irony, complaint, joy, resignation, light-heartedness, delight, unalloyed misery, despair and hope all present themselves at one point or another. The players of the Pacifica Quartet are in full accord with first whether, then when, and finally how to shine just the right amount of light on these colors in the music. Extra layers are added. And the structures are the better for that.

The Pacificas do not wear their considerable technique on their sleeves. Listen to the start of the single, long (over 19 minutes) movement of the 13th quartet [CD.4:1 tr.1], for example. The strings have a breathiness, a magnified sense of closeness, of the process needed to elicit the right sound. Yet it's the music, not the sound production, that stays with you. The extremely slow tempo of the adagio must not be a flowing lament for its own sake. The requirement, then, is that the playing must build the music, rather than dissect and reproduce it, given that four instruments slowly circulate around the viola's lower registers to create mournfulness. It must be itself; and not a reference to something else with which the listener may be familiar. This quality of seamless construction lies at the heart of the Pacificas' success with this cycle.

The four CD box, Cedille 1003, is a collection of individual releases aggregated on completion of the fourth set. The recordings were made between July 2010 and December 2012. The acoustics of these performances, those of the Foellinger Great Hall at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana's Krannert Center and the Auer Hall at Bloomington [Volume III CD.2 tr.s 3-8 and Volume IV CD.2 tr.s 7-9] are close and sympathetic to the string sound, without depriving the players of the sense of space needed to make what's on offer here music, and not historical document. The booklets explore each work in turn, analyzing origin, context, themes and structure most intelligently. There are over a dozen other complete cycles on what has credibly been called the "greatest" chamber music cycle of the twentieth century; those by the Fitzwilliam (Decca 455776), Emerson (Deutsche Grammophon 4757407) and Borodin (Melodiya 1001077) are also worth a look. This well-produced series of performances by the Pacifica Quartet, though, must now be considered a front runner and one well worthy of any collector's attention.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey