This latest issue in the St. Petersburg Quartet’s ongoing Shostakovich cycle for Hyperion (their first disc included the Second and Third quartets; the second, Quartets Nos. 4, 6, and 8) offers a not always appropriate “kinder, gentler” view of the composer. Where they once painted in brash, bright strokes, here they have softened their presentation, offering some quietly beautiful, pastel-washed performances (a real liability in the epic Quartet No. 5, less so in the comparatively calm, elegiac No. 7). It’s not a bad perspective, but it is surprising coming from these players. For example, their softly-contoured Moderato-Allegretto of the Fifth quartet bears more similarities to the gentle allures of the slow movement of Ravel’s quartet than to any other of Shostakovich’s 15.
The St. Petersburg’s gutsier personality reemerges with a vengeance in the Ninth Quartet: emphatic rhythms support tonal qualities that highlight everything in the music that is strident and brusque. First violinist Alla Aranovskaya in particular fairly shrieks out her glissandos, attacking her instrument’s highest register in the Allegro with reckless enthusiasm. (With any other composer’s work, these wouldn’t exactly be compliments, but I mean them as such in this context.) It’s a gripping performance; if only the two others were similiarly intense! The sound for this series continues to be very fine, close but not claustrophobic. If we didn’t already have magnificent versions readily on hand (the Emersons, the classic Borodin, etc.), this would be a competitive option; but we do, and therefore this disc must remain a secondary choice.