SHOSTAKOVICH The Soviet Experience, Volume 1
7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108; 8 in C minor, Op. 110
MIASKOVSKY String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, Op. 86
Cedille Records CDR 90000 127 (2 CDs)
Having already recorded the complete string quartets of Mendelssohn, Easley Blackwood and Elliott Carter (the first two available on Cedille, the last a Grammy Award-winning Naxos release), the Pacifica Quartet turn now to some
of the most challenging and commanding quartets of the 20th century as they launch a four-volume, eight-disc survey of Shostakovich’s 15 essays in the form.
With the current catalogue hardly at a loss for good complete Shostakovich cycles, the Pacifica enter, if not a crowded market, then certainly one that is highly contested. Their decision to present the works in the context of other string quartets by some of Shostakovich’s composer peers – hence the series’ title The Soviet Experience – adds more than mere novelty to this first such proposition on disc. On the strength of this first volume – which includes Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Thirteenth String Quartet (his last) for contrast and comparison alongside four middle quartets by Shostakovich – the couplings provide vital substance and broaden the perspective.
Launching the cycle with the Fifth Quartet and its three immediate successors seems a considered and clever choice. Composed in 1952 and first performed in November 1953 just months after Stalin’s death, the Op. 92 Fifth serves as a template (and the others as testing grounds) for some of the elements that would come to define the character of the later, mature quartets, not least in their increasingly more conspicuous personal nature. No surprise, in hindsight, to find the first four notes on viola in its invigorating first movement spelling out Shostakovich’s initials, DSCH, a motif that would be returned to in each of the following three quartets.
The Pacifica perfectly captures the Fifth’s emotional complexity as it moves seamlessly from the rather restless bounce and brio of its first movement to the chilly austerity of its conclusion via the mysterious melancholy of its middle movement.
They are no less sure-footed in the markedly more lyrical and outwardly untroubled Op. 101 Sixth Quartet, composed in 1956.
Here, they take care not to take the music altogether at face value, nimbly finding nuance in its thematic intricacy, and allowing individual voices to be precisely and pertinently their own as they dance and dart in a constantly shifting dialogue. Their handling of the variations of the signature motif that concludes each of the four movements is measured and altogether subtle, offering four solid anchor points (and stepping stones) for music whose surface energy and élan masks darker and more subdued emotions beneath.
With the agenda-changing Seventh Quartet, a belated tribute in 1960 to the memory of his first wife, who had died six years earlier, the Pacifica get solidly into their stride, to deliver one of he standout performances of the work on disc. Dip into the dyspeptic ‘Allegretto’ for a measure of just how well these four young musicians play together, the sense of the ensemble listening and responding to each other’s shifts of tone and temperament wholly remarkable.
Even finer playing is to be found in the minor mode-saturated, clenched-fist dramas of the same year’s Eighth Quartet, composed at speed over three days and a remarkable bearing of the soul at the moment when Shostakovich had been compelled to join the Communist Party. The Pacifica perfectly capture the tumult, turmoil and toughness of the piece, adroitly framing its many quotations and overlapping agendas within a performance of dark, bitter poetry.
Composed a decade earlier (in 1950), Miaskovsky’s compelling Op. 86 A minor Thirteenth Quartet was also a product of the confining constraints of Stalinist conservatism. Here, its chiaroscuro underbelly is probed with a dexterity that mirrors the music’s churning melodies and richly realized themes to remarkable and often moving effect.
Throughout, the Pacifica Quartet play with a virtuosity tempered by lithe gracefulness, superbly controlled emotions, and real feeling and flair. The recorded sound is excellent, and William Hussey’s analytical liner note offers breadth and detail.
A vivid beginning to what promises to be an altogether essential cycle.