shostakovich quartets genuin

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor Op.108 (1960)
String Quartet No.8 in C minor Op.110 (1960)
String Quartet No.9 in E flat major Op.117 (1964)
String Quartet No.10 in A flat major Op.118 (1964)
Unfinished String Quartet (Pre-9th) (1962)
String Quartet No.11 in 7 minor Op.122 (1966)
String Quartet No.12 in D flat major Op.133 (1968)
String Quartet No.13 in B flat minor Op.138 (1970)
String Quartet No.13 (fragment – first version) (1968)
rec. 2022/23 Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal Cologne, Germany
Genuin GEN23826 [2 Cds: 148]

Shostakovich’s mighty cycle of fifteen string quartets remain not only his greatest and most enduring personal testament but also a remarkable insight into the mind of one of the great composers of the 20th Century. Alongside Bartók’s cycle of six quartets it is the only cycle of such works from the last century to have entered the ‘standard’ repertoire for quartets globally. Not to say there are not many other exceptionally fine individual and collective chamber works but none other has had such an impact on the active repertoire. I doubt there is a single professional quartet in the world that does not have at least one Shostakovich Quartet (probably No.8) in their active repertoire. On disc there is a plethora of cycles complete and partial from many major ensembles. For collectors of a certain age the LP black box of the Borodin Quartet playing Nos.1-13 (with the Beethoven’s playing the final 2 as a later release) with an implacable Shostakovich staring impeccably from behind his bottle-thick glasses will be an indelible memory and indeed a reference set. In the UK the Presto website currently offers thirteen complete cycles (although not currently the Alexander’s cycle on Foghorn) plus a fourteenth from the Sorrel Quartet on individual Chandos discs – there are probably others too. Dipping into any of those sets will reveal playing of genuine stature and musical insight with the Borodin/Beethoven cycle and the Decca Fitzwilliam cycle having the imprimatur of the composer’s direct engagement. I cannot claim detailed knowledge of any but a small group of those complete cycles so any claim of “better” or indeed “best” would be speculative at best. The three cycles I do know well are that original Borodin/Melodiya, the Brodskys first cycle on Teldec and the aforementioned Alexanders on Foghorn.

All three of those sets are of considerable stature so how does this nascent cycle from the Cologne-based Asasello-Quartett measure up? In truth – spectacularly well. It is well known just how high the standard of quartet playing is currently. But even by that very high bar, the Asasellos play with thrilling, high-risk, seat of your pants brilliance. To my shame I had not heard of the Asasello Quartett let alone any of their recordings previously. According to the liner the quartet was founded in Basel in 2000 and moved to Cologne in 2004. The players are a pan-European group; 1st violin Rostislav Kozhevnikov is Russian, 2nd violin Barbara Streil Swiss, violist Justyna Šliwa Polish and cellist Teemu Myöhänen Finnish. They met in the Chamber Music class of Walter Levin at the Basel Conservatory. Lead violin Kozhevnikov is a very dynamic presence but one of the features of this ensemble that struck me particularly strongly is just how well matched and balanced they are as a group. This is more than just a case of some nifty post-production work on the mixing desk, the quartet are superbly matched in terms of timbre, vibrato, articulation and attack. This is clearly something that has been refined and honed over the two decades and more of their close association. All quartet music is a minefield of challenges for ensemble playing but Shostakovich’s music is littered with passages that test the individual players and collective group to the extreme. Perhaps even more than usual in this cycle when one notes a quote in the booklet next to the track listing; “The composer’s metro-rhythmic instructions should not be ignored…. under no circumstance should significant changes in the author’s prescribed tempi be made.” This quote is taken from “Memories of D. D. Shostakovich” in the section by Gavriil Yudin. Yudin was a conductor/composer perhaps best known for his completion of the opening movement of Glazunov’s unfinished Symphony No.9. In the mid 1940’s he was in communication with Shostakovich over a performance of his then-new Symphony No.9 where Yudin followed the metronome markings unlike some other performers – apparently to Shostakovich’s approval.

Not having read that collection of memories, nor having access to scores of the quartets I cannot say with certainty that these Asasello performances are guided by close adherence to any/all metronome markings in these works but by ear and stopwatch alone it certainly appears to be the case. Not that taking a single reference by a musician not especially renowned for his association with a composer should dictate an entire approach but it is certainly a valid starting point. The results across all seven quartets offered here is striking and for me wholly convincing. Shostakovich’s use of tempo indications is elusively bland with Allegretto and Largo having almost a generic usage that quite belies the music that follows. This is evident from the String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor Op.108 that opens this collection [the Asasellos present these quartet in numerical order across the 2 disc set]. This work rather sits in the shadow of its close – Opus 110 – ‘famous’ compatriot. In this performance it appears a brief work too – barely eleven minutes here whereas the Borodins are 12:30, The Brodskys and Alexanders just around 13:00. Timings alone should never define a performance but here it clearly flags a fundamentally different approach to not just the tempi employed but also the expressive landscape that results. The closing Allegro-Allegretto of this seventh quartet is an immediate, prime and actually rather shocking example of the Asasellos’ no-holds-barred approach. In the Alexander’s hands the listener is aware of the essential fugato nature of this music. Here it is a brutalist nightmare. In lesser hands than these remarkable players this might well descend into a noisy crude mess but here the playing is so razor tight that I can be nothing except in awe of both the technical execution but also interpretative choice which is revelatory. Especially when this vicious allegro dissolves into one of those ambiguous superficially simple allegrettos that Shostakovich teases his listeners with. Here the Asasellos play with such easy lyricism and grace that the contrast with what came before is as striking as it is confusing.

Generally the Asasellos challenge the conventions of Shostakovich quartet performing practice although I suspect they would feel they are simply playing what is on the page as it is written. So the slow movements tend to have more of a flow than in some performances with a greater sense of forward momentum than other versions who weightily brood. A good example is the pair of linked Largo movements at the end of Quartet No.8. The Sorrels on Chandos – well recorded and well played – represent the ‘standard’ approach and as such do it very well taking a combined time of around 11:45 for this pair of movements. I find this infinitely preferable to the rather mannered Yggdrasil Quartet on BIS – in other repertoire they were a stunning ensemble but as evidenced by their single disc of Shostakovich I am not sure they related much to his music – who took 11:00. In contrast the Asasellos are just 7:39 – a massive difference. Again this is a major rethink of pre-conceptions and I can imagine that for some listeners this will be too much. If it was not played with as much authority as it is here I would probably think that way too. But these choices are so well executed with such conviction that I must admit to being swept away by them. The liner note suggests that the “victims of facism” to whom the work is dedicated might as much be the composer himself as the dead of World War II.

Kozhevnikov contributes the liner note (in English and German only) which relates his own –and the quartet’s – journey to discovering Shostakovich and is strong on the context of the music rather than any kind of technical analysis. Interestingly, when the quartet was studying in Basel with Walter Levin playing Shostakovich was “out of the question” because Levin considered him a second rate composer at best. But a quick dive into the Asasello Quartet’s background and website shows a group willing to challenge convention whether in repertoire, performance or presentation. The quartet’s discography before now – mainly on the Genuin label – is small, less than a dozen discs – and focussed on contemporary music and composers. There is a double disc set titled “Paysages” that includes music by Beethoven, Bloch, Taneyev and Szymanowski amongst other. However, this Shostakovich cycle is about as mainstream as they have been on disc at least. The debate continues to rage between the advocates of Shostakovich the secret dissident and those who see him as little more than a State-approved apologist. What cannot be disputed is that he wrote intensely personal music in almost frenzied outbursts of creativity alongside and between some of his most propagandist scores. Take for example; Cello concerto no. 1, op. 107 (1959) String quartet no. 7, op. 108 (1960) Satires (Pictures of the Past), op. 109 (1960) String quartet no. 8, op. 110 (1960) Five Days Five Nights, op. 111 (1960) Novorossiisk Chimes, sans opus (1960) Symphony No. 12, The Year 1917, op. 112 (1961) Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar, op. 113 (1962). The clash in styles of just this small group of works jars – perhaps performances of his great works should jar too?

Quartets nine and ten are a pair as well although written some four years after seven and eight. Interestingly String Quartet No.9 in E flat major Op.117 was the Asasellos first engagement with this body of work which Kozhevnikov notes was dedicated to Shostakovich’s third wife Irina Antonovna. Again the Asasello’s preference for flowing tempi in slower movements accounts for most of the three minutes difference between the Borodins and themselves – indeed the older quartet are quicker, more hard-edged in the third movement Allegretto than the playful Asasello. The Alexanders are somewhere between with this style of music particularly well-suited to their neat and elegant playing. As elsewhere with the Alexanders I feel they are very good at revealing the musical structure if this comes at the price of digging less deep into the message behind the notes. In the company of any of the other three quartets the Brodskys are disappointingly literal and measured. The closing Allegro sees the Asasellos in blazing form – a wild headlong dance swirling into the apocalyptic abyss. Again this seems impossibly/improbably fast but this movement encompasses a range of mood and tempi none of which would be thought of as gentle. Throughout this quartet bleak solos are interrupted by savage collective gestures – again in this performance the level of attack and unanimity is genuinely remarkable. The old Borodin/Melodiya performance is predictably excellent albeit different in significant ways – but jumping between the two hard not to notice just how cavernous and unsubtle the older engineering is. In fairness the ear soon adjusts when listening through to any of those performances but it does compromise some of the brilliance and impact of those famed versions.

Disc one is completed with String Quartet No.10 in A flat major Op.118 where Shostakovich reverts back to the traditional four movement form after the three continuous movements of No.7 and the five continuous movements of quartets 8 and 9. There is a general sense of sparseness in this quartet that seems to presage much of the music he was to write in the last decade of his life. No surprise that the Asasello version is one of the quicker versions most notably in the third movement Adagio. This is another movement with a repeating/passacaglia bass line quite beautifully played as expected by the Asasello but this is an instance where the weight of the Borodins’ more dignified tempo seems more effective. The opening of the finale [played attacca] Allegretto-Andante is another section of strangely unsettling music. On one hand a simple almost playful theme starts but supported by bleak string drones which do not have any apparent emotional relation to the little ditty being played above. Elsewhere in the movement Shostakovich references the earlier passacaglia as well as his favoured DSCH motif so there is a lot of ambiguity and context for the listener to process. This is the longest single movement – 9:36 here – across the pair of discs but the cumulative effect is oddly equivocal with textures sparse and explicit emotion elusive. This is where the sheer beauty and technical poise of the Asasello’s playing pays dividends with the closing pages performed with such ethereal precision as to be wholly convincing. Critical reception of this quartet was and remains mixed. Perhaps it does represent a transition towards the late group of masterpieces but in these hands it still makes for an impressive work. The ambiguities of this quartet reveal the expressive range and nuance of the Asesellos. Up until now this review might read as some kind of celebration of the fast and the furious – this performance alone shows they are so much more than that.

Part of the reason for the hiatus between the published eighth and ninth quartets is that Shostakovich wrote and then destroyed another. A six minute Allegretto of this “Pre-Ninth” quartet survives and opens the second disc in this set. This was only rediscovered in 2003 and was first recorded by the Alexanders as part of their 2006 complete survey. It is certainly an interesting movement with nothing apparent as to why Shostakovich deemed it only worthy of being burnt. A direct comparison again shows the Asasellos to be more dynamic (especially in the manic central section) and more wide-ranging expressively than the very good but less uninhibited Alexanders. The remaining three quartets on this disc were dedicated in turn to a member of the Beethoven String Quartet who before the Borodins took over the mantle in The Soviet Union were Shostakovich’s main collaborator in the genre. This is another elusive work with seven movements played attacca lasting a total of just over sixteen minutes (the Borodins a couple of minutes slower). The fourth movement Etude is a pretty terrifying work-out for the lead violinist and all the players in my mini comparative study do well even if the Alexander’s leader nearly trips up once. The finale is the longest movement of this quartet with themes from earlier in the work revisited but fades into a pensive silence.

The String Quartet No.12 in D flat major did not appear for another two years but shows how Shostakovich was still experimenting with the genre of the string quartet. This quartet is in just two movements – each with several interlinked sections – with the second movement triple the length of the first. When this work was premiered there was some consternation in that the opening cello theme is a 12 note tone row but this is something of a harmonic red-herring with the music finally resolving into as unambiguous indeed triumphant D flat major at the end of the quartet as any Shostakovich wrote. Indeed this quartet rather dispels the narrative that all Shostakovich’s late works are death-haunted gloom-fests. What undoubtedly does remain true in this work is its emotional ambiguity; is the ‘happy’ music ‘sad’ and vice versa. Hard not to wonder if Shostakovich got so caught up in dissembling and avoiding ‘meaning’ that sometimes he did not quite know what he meant himself! Part of the strength of these Asasello performances is that they are objective and they ‘trust’ the written note even when that can seem extreme whether in terms of tempo or dynamic or expressive direction.

String Quartet No.13 in B flat minor Op.138 was not completed until 1970 by which time Shostakovich’s health was in severe decline. This is presented as a single movement span in this performance lasting 18:49 (the Borodins are 19:56, the Brodskys 20:54 and Alexanders 18:45). The quartet was dedicated to the violist in the Beethoven quartet hence the significant role for that instrument. There is a haunted quality to this work with the sense of drained emotion and chilly emptiness disturbingly powerful. All three comparative versions are genuinely fine although the Brodsky’s although the slowest – which brings some interesting and effective passages do not quite ‘risk’ thinning away their quite healthy collective tone – the same thought occurred to me when I listened to the Sorrels. This is the etiolated music of an unwell man. The Asasellos do not make for a comfortable listen but this is not comfortable music. As a last collective gesture the work ends with sustained very high B flat from the viola and two violins that crescendos to a last desperate sfzorzando cry. All the quartets execute this well but again the Asasellos push the expressive envelope just a little bit further to riveting effect. The disc is concluded by a genuine rarity – the world premiere of a 4:07 fragment of the first version of this String Quartet No.13. Much as with the Pre-No.9 fragment this appears to be a path-not-travelled rather than a different working out of similar/same material. Interestingly it does not sound nearly as haunted as the ‘final’ version. My only observation is that the conclusion of the actual No.13 is so striking and powerful that it makes rewarding conclusion to this set. By going straight into this somewhat lighter fragment that mood is dispelled. Placing the fragment before the rather harrowing complete quartet would have been a preferable choice I feel.

I was not expecting to find these performances to be as challenging, fascinating or as revelatory as they have proved to be. As mentioned earlier in this review, I expect that for some listeners these will push boundaries too far but for me the real value – apart from their technical and musical brilliance – is they force me to reconsider the body of work which these remarkable pieces form. Clearly the Asasello Quartett is on a mission to be something of disruptors. From their website (which to be honest does not do them that great a service) it is clear that they wish to defy many of the standard conventions of quartet performance and recording. There are pictures in the liner booklet of two of the players wearing what appear to be pyjamas. The packaging of these discs is not particularly engaging or informative – a dog’s head in what looks a bit like a needle. Having looked at the website and seeing that the quartet have run a series of concerts in 2022 titled “Sputnik/DSH” – so the image is of a Sputnik and the dog is Laika. Sputnik translates as “co-traveller” so this series of concerts featured the works performed here alongside ‘companion’ works by composers of the same era. While challenging convention is wholly worthwhile there can be a danger that in the process some listeners might pass this release by solely on the basis of its packaging and style of presentation. Especially given that the Asasello Quartett are not a well-known name outside of Germany at least. I very nearly did not request these discs for review on that very simplistic basis.

But in fact, I would have to say that this new set has been something of a revelation. This is with my caveat of not knowing many of the well-regarded alternatives – Pacifica/Emerson/Shostakovich/Danel/Rasumovsky as just a sample of other cycles (I know the Fitzwilliam from LP days but have not revisited on CD). As an aside – I see from the Presto listing that the 2006 Rasumovsky cycle on Oehms references the “Scrupulous adoption of Shostakovich’s metronome marks” – out of curiosity I dipped cursorily into the on-site samples. The Rasumovsky tempi are certainly similar to the Asesllos but perhaps lacking the extra bite that marks these performances.

Another detail dug out from the Asasello website is that there are sessions planned for the first half of 2024 to complete this as a cycle. If my reaction at being offered these recordings first time around was cool indifference I will be beating down the door to receive those discs. I cannot fault any aspect of this new set; the playing is genuinely exceptional in technical, expressive and musical terms. The technical recording too is very fine in an ideally undemonstrative way. A contender for a 2024 recording of the year and as I write this, we are still in 2023.

Nick Barnard

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