some of the most important string quartet music.
Reviewed in the United States on 29 January 2005
If you are looking to purchase a complete cycle of Shostakovich's quartets, I cannot tell you which to buy. After much consideration, I chose the Emerson's performance of the cycle, but your own desires might be different. Your choices should likely come down to the Borodin, Fitzwillian, and Emerson versions, and you should read lots of reviews for all of those. Those first two cover the "Russian spirit" of the music best, according to critical consensus, and since both ensembles worked with the composer, they probably have the most credibility. They also are more appealing in terms of price. Despite being often criticized as shallow, I chose the Emerson set for three reasons: I have their Bartok cycle which I think is mind-blowing (I have listened to lots of other interpretations of Bartok's quartets, particularly the third and fourth, and the Emersons have everyone beat). Secondly, I thought I would enjoy an "external" interpretation of these quartets -- fresh performances of the quartets qua music with less overt "Russianness" (nothing wrong with Russianness, mind you). Finally, the Emersons recorded this set live (the only audience noise is applause at the end of each piece), and I thought that might be more intense. Although these are the only performances of these works I have heard and I cannot compare them favorably or unfavorably to others, I think they are very good. Many critics say the Emersons often play too fast, which may be true, but i will attest to the dazzling rush are capable of giving the music. Whether or not it is "too fast" (or "too slow" for that matter) is not relevant to whether the given speed is a factor in the enjoyment one derives from the music's composite. Personally, I think this ensemble is oozing both passion and technical gleam - can't ask for much more than that.
A good introduction to these quartets is probably the Borodin set on Virgin, which covers quartets no. 2, 3, 7, 8, and 12. It is two discs for the price of one and it might be a good item to check out.
As to the music itself, the cycle is about 95 percent outstanding. Shostakovich adapted modern elements to his personal style, a style emotionally connected to the plight of the Russian and Jewish people under Soviet tyranny. It was also a style that earned him scorn quite a bit of scorn from the Soviet authorities. Shostakovich's music draws from modern elements, but his music is considerably more tonal and melodic than many other twentieth-century quartets, although no.12 is particularly dissonant and atonal. It took awhile for Shostakovich to write his first string quartet -- the first was written after he had already tackled five symphonies. This quartet and the next few are relatively bright, occasionally trimmed with irony or sadness or danger. But as tragedy piled up in Shostakovich's life, his music began to reflect deep melancholy and despair. It amounts to some of the saddest, darkest music ever. Later still (starting at about no.11), the quartets become even more depressing, abstract works progressively away from conventions as Shostakovich's health deteriorated. These are more dissonant and unsettling on the whole, with use of serial tones rows. There're a couple of parts that I find kind of tedious, but I'm obsessive about strange things, and for all I know that might be a performance issue rather than a compositional one.
I can't talk about the music in-depth. That would take hours and you would be better served learning about these compositions from experts. i will conclude merely by saying that Shostakovich's quartets are some of the best music i have heard, with numerous amazing subtleties that continue to reveal themselves. I am very pleased with this set.
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