String Quartets: No. 9 in E♭; No. 10 in A♭; No. 11 in f; No. 12 in D♭.
String Quartet No. 6 in e
ÇEDILLE 90000138 (2 CDs: 128:45)
This is the third two-CD release in Cedille’s and the Pacifica Quartet’s series called “The Soviet Experience,” in which several quartets by Shostakovich are complemented by a quartet by one of his Soviet contemporaries. (Volume 1, which encompassed Quartets 5 through 8, also included Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2, and Volume 2, devoted to Quartets 1 through 4, also included Miaskovsky’s Quartet No. 13.) This is, in short, a very bright idea. I look forward to the last volume, not just for Shostakovich’s last three quartets, but also to see who the “bonus” composer will be!
As I was listening to the Shostakovich quartets in Volume 3, the word that came to mind, over and over again, was “ambiguity.” The haunted works from the end of his life are not always straightforward, but they do generally stare death in the face. These four quartets from 1964 to 1968, however, while they are acknowledgments of mortality, are less frank. They advance masked. Pain hides behind the grotesque humor, behind gnomic utterances, and behind motoric or obsessive activity. “Nice” folk dances or popular melodies become distorted, limp along, shriek, or fall in a heap. Nothing is quite what it seems to be. No sooner does the composer extend a security blanket than he pulls it back again, or waves it mockingly in our faces. Although Mahler was most at home in the symphonic genre, Shostakovich was never more Mahler-like than when he was composing his string quartets.
Jerry Dubins and Peter J. Rabinowitz were enthusiastic about the first two volumes in this series, although not necessarily in agreement with each other! Reviewing the first volume, Rabinowitz praised “the Pacifica’s ability to bring out the music’s elusive sense of uncertainty.” I think that’s spot on. That doesn’t mean that these readings themselves are uncertain, it means (at least in my opinion) that they show an awareness of the music’s emotional ambiguity, and do not shrink from expressing it. The playing is often fierce but always controlled, and the music’s emotions, when they take sudden turns to the left or to the right, are keenly followed by the players, who never lose concentration or a sense of where the music is headed. I compared the Pacifica Quartet with the Brodsky Quartet in the Ninth Quartet. The Brodskys are faster in four of the five movements—drastically so in the fourth movement (2:34 vs. 3:42 on the present recording). More significantly, though, the Brodskys now seem a little plain and smooth next to the Pacifica Quartet, who bring more color and crispness and even strangeness to this music. It seems to me that new recordings of these quartets just keep getting better and better, perhaps because our understanding of what this music is all about is increasing.
Weinberg’s quartet is much earlier than the other works on this CD; it dates from 1948. It was banned by Soviet authorities for no obvious reason when it appeared, and it was not premiered until 2007 by the Danel Quartet, who later recorded it for CPO. It is a large work in six movements, and its nexus is the fugal fourth movement, an
. Some years later, Shostakovich and Weinberg engaged in a friendly rivalry over quartet writing, and Weinberg’s compositional style moved closer to Shostakovich’s, but in the meantime, this ambitious work provides the listener with more to contrast than to compare. I have not heard the Danel Quartet’s recording, but the Pacifica Quartet brings the same virtues to this quartet as they do to the Shostakovich quartets, even though they are gentler in this work.
This series has been notable for its intelligent and helpful booklet essays, and this one, written by David Fanning, is another fine specimen. The excellent engineering is one more reason to give this disc a strong recommendation.