The (Happy) Soviet Experience Continues: More Shostakovich Quartets

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Volume 2 of the Pacifica Quartet’s ongoing and very intelligent series of the complete quartets of Shostakovich plus works by some of his contemporaries consists of Nos. 1-4, along with Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2. The two most famous Russian composers of their day were not friends. Prokofiev criticized Shostakovich’s early music, particularly, as lacking in melody, which in a sense it does. Shostakovich was no tunesmith, but he developed a very distinctive way of working with melodic archetypes that permitted him to fashion a musical idiom as personal and expressive as anyone’s. Consider the sound sample below—the opening of the Third Quartet. It’s both the most delicious opening of any quartet written in the 20th century, a clear homage to the classical era, and instantly identifiable as Shostakovich. And it’s played perfectly in this performance.

Indeed, there is virtually nothing to criticize there. The brief First Quartet has just the right combination of innocence with hints of something darker just below the surface. The much more substantial Second Quartet, with its dramatic Recitative and Romance second movement that threatens to come unhinged but never quite does, is very powerfully projected, as is the intense Theme and Variations finale. The Fourth Quartet, in its finale, features one of Shostakovich’s first flirtations with Jewish music, and the Pacifica players capture the music’s quasi-tragic mood with unflinching honesty and (as in all these performances) impeccable ensemble, as naturally balanced and engineered as we have any right to hope.

Much of Shostakovich’s quartet writing is very spare. Like Haydn, he understood that a quartet need not mean four equal players having something to do all the time, but rather might involve duos, trios, and any number of possible combinations in which each player is potentially the equal of his or her colleague. I strongly doubt that Prokofiev had any such understanding. His quartet writing, as with his orchestral writing, is consistently thick, chordal, pianistic in fact, and “melodic” in a way that Shostakovich’s is not. Coming after Shostakovich, the opening of his Second Quartet comes as something of a shock, but the performance here is every bit as affecting, with the Andante molto central episode in the finale particularly well projected. This is turning out to be a terrific series.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None for this coupling

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