SHOSTAKOVICH: Quartet No. 8 in Cminor, Op. 110; Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Quartet No. 8 in C minor,  Op. 110;  Quartet  No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144. Fitzwilliam String Quartet. L’Oiseau-Lyre DSLO 11.

Where most composers turn to the string quartet either for their most rarefied formalis­tic distillations or for the relief of an occasional excursion into a peripheral medium, Shostakovich made of his 15 quartets a creative world as richly varied, character­istically idiosyncratic, and bewilderingly contradictory as his canon of 15 symphonies.

When he died last year, Shostakovich left behind approximately 150 works that, if nothing else, demonstrate the enormous individuality and originality still possible for a composer writing consistently within the framework of tonality. The actual quality of Shostakovich’s creative output is quite problematical, however, and a conclusive assessment of it is difficult. As with many other composers whose “official rating” has vacillated widely, most particularly Mahler (with whom his affinity in many other ways is clearly evident), one often finds in Shostakovich’s music passages of unquestionable eloquence and authority side by side, often even in the same movement, with passages of mindless bombast and embarrassing banality. Between these two extremes are numerous examples of questionable and ambiguous judgment in matters of taste, formal progression, and dramatic effect. As with Mahler, the reactions of different listeners to these episodes varies radically, depending on one’s predisposition toward the composer’s music in general. In my opinion the verdict definitely leans toward the positive side, although obviously a most erratic, impulsive, and perhaps undisciplined mind was at work.

The two pieces on this recording comprise an intriguing pairing, though perhaps not suited for everyone’s tastes, as they are probably the most intensely personal of all Shostakovich’s string quartets. No. 8, a gripping work from beginning to end, was composed in three days during a visit to Dresden in 1960. It is dotted with strategically placed quotations from his earlier works, and its basic thematic unit is a motif derived from the composer’s own name.

Quartet No. 15 was composed within the last year of his life. In the words of Alan George, violist of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, “… in this work Shostakovich was composing his own Requiem as surely as Mozart was composing his in 1791.” Whether or not this is true, not to presume that it is while listening to the six connected Adagios that comprise the work is almost impossible. Whatever the motivation that engendered the harrowing music in this quartet, the material is presented baldly, without the abstraction and generalization that usually transform a composer’s personal visions into an objective creation.

The work is far more a public contemplation than a prepared presentation; thus to separate it from the evident intensity of feeling that motivated it is difficult. The extemporaneous quality of No. I5 can easily appear self-indulgent to unsympathetic ears, as long-breathed elegiac melodies wander seemingly aimlessly, connected by fragmentary shrieks, and punctuated by funereal dotted-note rhythms.

The performances of both quartets are quite in a class by themselves. The Fitzwilliam String Quartet is a group of young players, apparently in their mid-20s, who have become interested in Shostakovich’s string quartets. This interest led to a warm period of acquaintance with the composer during the last three years of his life. Their relationship is described by Alan George in the fascinating liner notes. Their reminiscences reveal a personal ingenuousness and total commitment to and understanding of the music that is rare and rewarding to behold. These attributes are evident in their performances: technically impeccable, reflecting a thorough identification with the meaning of the music. Were more contemporary music played with such involvement, today’s music scene would be far healthier. I recommend this recording whole-heartedly as a definitive presentation of two of the most profound pieces of chamber music by one of the 20th century’s major composers.