shostakovich auerbach quartets capriccio

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2007 and the recording is still available.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960)
Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, Op. 143 (1973, arr. contralto and string quartet by Auerbach, 2005)
Lera Auerbach (b. 1973)
Cetera desunt (String Quartet No. 3) (2006)
Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo)
Petersen String Quartet
rec. 2005/06, Deutschland Radio Studio K10
Capriccio 71104 SACD [61]

About a year ago I gave a lukewarm response to the Petersen’s disc of Shostakovich First and Fourth Quartets, coupled with the Piano Quintet. Here again we find the quartet coupling a Shostakovich quartet with other works – this time with significantly more striking results.

First, though, the ‘pure’ Shostakovich, the famous Eighth Quartet, possibly the composer’s best known work in this medium. I am sure Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the work as a Chamber Symphony has helped. The Eighth is dedicated “To the memory of the victims of fascism and war”  and is an astonishingly moving tribute that speaks of the most heartfelt humanitarianism. The DSCH motto is prevalent here – unmistakable, in fact. Another favourite Shostakovich pastime, self-quotation – which was to reach its zenith in the Fifteenth Symphony – permeates the music. The Fifth Symphony, the Second Piano Trio, Lady Macbeth and the First Symphony all crop up, but none as strongly as the First Cello Concerto.

The sound on this disc is stunning. There is a crystalline clarity to the quartet, yet there is no lack of warmth, no trace of the clinical. What is more, stretches such as the Allegro molto – the relentless second movement, lasting here 2:30 – carry all the vehemence they deserve, while the recording allows all detail to be heard. There is never any question of the recording being ‘stretched’ by the players’ grim determination. The third movement makes overt reference to the First Cello Concerto while the fourth combines this with the Lady Macbeth quote – a work banned since 1936 – the chosen passage is that to the words “We didn’t see each other all day”. The Petersen Quartet, despite their obvious energy, is actually at its most impressive in passages of half-light. The brief-ish finale (3:53) emerges as a profound lament. It is not unrealistic to at least mention this performance in the same breath as the truly great accounts of this work.

The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva celebrates the work of a poetess who sought escape from the authorities in suicide; her dates are 1892-1941.  The first movement rises naturally out of the ashes of the Eighth Quartet. A solo line announces the bare melodic statement by the contralto to the first lines of the first movement, entitled “My Poems”, in which the poetess avers her certainty that her poetry’s time will come. It is an emotion of hope undermined by the shifting, definitely dark scoring. Kushpler has exactly the right plaintive timbre to her voice. The second movement, “Where does such tenderness come from?”, begins in similar manner. The question of the title recurs as an insistent refrain before “Hamlet’s Dialogue with Conscience” opens with the closest we have had so far to a consonance – which is not the same as saying that it is consonant! The text is as black as can be, and Shostakovich’s setting is unrelentingly bleak in response. Kushpler articulates her cries beautifully, never once breaking her tone but still portraying real anguish. Resolute defiance is the keyword for “The Poet and the Tsar”; the strings invoke the drum-beat of the title in the next movement, “No, the drum beat” before explicit defiance once more comes to the fore. Finally, “To Anna Akhmatova”, a tribute to the great poetess and a dirge in all but name. Kushpler is at the height of her powers here. Memorable.

Interestingly, Shostakovich’s Op. 143 was written in 1973, the year of its arranger’s birth. As you can see from the headnote, the arrangement itself dates from 2005. Even hotter off the press is the Third String Quartet, Cetera desunt, dated 2006! Poetry is clearly important to Auerbach. She writes of the dangers of writing on one’s own compositions in the booklet! She makes use of the strambiotto romagnuolo sonnet (ab ab cc dd). Auerbach uses what she calls “musical rhymes” to shadow this structure. Auerbach uses Latin in her booklet notes to identify her creed – “Nomina sunt odiosa”; “Names are hateful” – Cicero, I think? And yet she uses Latin, too, in the title of this quartet. It is called “Cetera desunt” – “The rest is missing” first, and then String Quartet No. 3 in parentheses. This is also the title of the sixth and final movement.

No doubting the DSCH presence at the quartet’s opening, though. Strong and resolute, it heralds Auerbach’s own uncompromising language. Shostakovich rhythms are transformed and emphasised by slashing violins; her soliloquies are just as potent as the Master’s. Auerbach’s language is as concentrated as late Shostakovich. There is a feeling that the music has been distilled from a greater whole, something perhaps mirrored in the title of the final movement.

A fascinating disc. The programming shows real individuality; the recording is top-drawer, the playing first class and the music both raw and sophisticated at the same time. Do try to hear this.

Colin Clarke

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