Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 5-8 (CD review)

Also, Miaskovsky: Quartet No. 13.  Pacifica Quartet. Cedille Records CDR 90000 127 (2-disc set).

The Soviet-Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a man of many moods; or least his music reflects many moods. I'm sure a lot of people, like me, tend to think first of his heavier, more-severe works, his fifteen symphonies of various degrees of complexity and angst, yet he could also produce colorful ballets or the delightfully rousing Festive Overture. In and out of favor with the Soviet government for not being conservative enough, Shostakovich always seemed to emerge on top by proving his traditional credentials while at the same time writing music that fit into modern trends. Love him or hate him, he created a ton of material, at least some which appeals to practically everybody.

The current two-disc set from Cedille Records, subtitled The Soviet Experience, Volume 1, presents four string quartets by Shostakovich and one by a contemporary, Nikolai Miaskovsky, that reflect some of the differing tempers of music in the Soviet Union, as interpreted by the Pacifica Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 92, written in 1952, is the fifth of fifteen string quartets the composer wrote. In three movements--fast, slow, fast--played without a break, the music demonstrates a point Professor William Hussey makes in his booklet notes (which are worth reading, by the way): "The informal nature of the string quartet allowed for private performances. So the quartet form became a useful outlet to the composer when the political climate was not conducive to public appraisal of his music." In other words, he could get away with more in the intimate, relatively private quartet than he could in big, public symphonic presentations where the Soviet censors would likely be lurking.

At the time Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Quartet, the Soviet government had already condemned his music as deviating from Socialist Realist tenets. With the Fifth, the composer continued to defy convention by including a number of conflicting motives and rhythms.

The String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 from 1956 sounds remarkably more conventional, more lyrically Romantic, even classical, than No. 5. This seems odd because by this time Stalin had died, and there was a new cultural freedom in the Soviet Union. So why return to the past? Perhaps a new marriage had a calming effect on the composer. Or perhaps the music isn't as traditional as it appears.

In any case, the Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, violin; Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello) play Shostakovich as though born to it. Among the best small ensembles in the country, the Pacifica players perform with enthusiasm, passion, grace, precision, and, above all, virtuosity. If anyone could make Shostakovich come alive for twenty-first century ears, it's these folks.

The second disc contains two more Shostakovich quartets, Nos. 7 and 8, both from 1960, and the String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, Op. 86, by Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950).  Of the three, No. 8 is probably the most recognizable, the most personal, and the most tragic. The Pacifica players give it an ardent, heartfelt interpretation.

The Miaskovsky quartet reminds us that he was born and raised before the Russian Revolution and still adhered to much of the old school. Yet he had much to learn from the younger generation as well, and the music is at once melancholy, energetic, serene, and agitated. Again, the Pacifica Quartet seem more than happy to exploit these varying climates.

One of the usual pleasures of a Cedille recording is listening to the work of audio engineer Bill Maylone, who with co-engineer Judith Sherman, turns in another splendid job with the Shostakovich. Recorded in the Foelinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 2010 and 2011, the sonics are exceptionally smooth and natural. There is a clear separation of instruments without pinning each to the wall for minute examination. Although it's miked a tad close, making the group appear bigger and more widely spread out than they would probably sound in person, the effect is fairly effective in terms of midrange transparency, with a touch of hall ambience for added realism.

Finally, I would note the cover picture (see insert above), which Cedille point out they meant ironically, "as a (literally) striking representation of 'The Soviet Experience' for composers such as Shostakovich and Miaskovsky, especially at the time of their 5th and 13th Quartets, respectively, coming in the aftermath of the notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948." I like it.


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