THE SOVIET EXPERIENCE, VOLUME II. SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 1 in C, op. 49. String Quartet No. 2 in A, op. 68. String Quartet No. 3 in f, op. 73. String Quartet No. 4 in D, op. 83. PROKOFIEV: String Quartet No. 2 in F, op. 92.
Pacifica Quartet.
Cedille Records CDR 90000 130 TT: 129:17 (2 CDs).

Public and private. This is the second volume of what looks like a so-far terrific complete Shostakovich string quartet cycle, with other Soviet composers picked up along the way. The previous entry in the series (Cedille CDR 90000 127) featured quartets 5-8, as well as the Myaskovsky 13th. The quartets here come from the late Thirties through the Forties.

I'm old enough to remember Prokofiev as the great Soviet composer and Shostakovich as a facile wannabe among Western critics. My hero, Virgil Thomson, had written a scathing review of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and dismissed the composer in general. Indeed, that was my own view of Shostakovich up until I heard the Symphony No. 13. What I had thought of as a glib talent became a "natural" one, like Mozart, with the rare gift of putting the music in his head directly onto the page. Prokofiev's reputation, in the meantime, has fallen, his major works rarely played.

Shostakovich's cycle of quartets has taken its place among the major examples in the literature. What strikes me most about them is the composer's deep understanding of the medium. Indeed, Shostakovich always seems to come up with music that fits whatever his resources like a glove. These quartets celebrate four individual instruments. They don't try to become a string orchestra, for example. The textures are usually clear, and the thicker moments cannily and sparingly placed. A fine piece of work in itself, the first quartet (1938), compared to its successors, comes off like a duty, rather than as something Shostakovich had to write. Between that and the second, however, Shostakovich met the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who made the string quartet and the symphony central to his output and who prodded Shostakovich to use the genre as a vehicle for his deepest thoughts.

This bore fruit in the second quartet, written in 1944, about a year after the magnificent Eighth Symphony. The differences between this and the first strike you immediately: larger formal scale, bigger ideas, a more powerful punch charting "inner weather" (in Robert Frost's phrase), all without violating the scale of the string quartet. The first movement, "Overture," puts forward a tight argument with just two ideas, a call-to-arms fanfare and a gesture as insistent as a dentist's drill. The first theme makes wide leaps, while the second worries a semitone. However, as the movement proceeds, it becomes quite clear that the two themes are actually related, and Shostakovich's development transforms one to the other and back again.

The adagio second movement, "Recitative and Romance," showcases the first violin. The recitative -- essentially a wide-ranging melody over slowly-changing chords -- seems a favorite Shostakovich device. It occurs in many of his major works. After the conclusion of the initial recitative, wavery and ambiguous, the solo cello presents the skeleton of the Romance theme, which coalesces into a mournful lament by a river. The recitative returns and the movement ends on a soft chordal sequence that brings an "Amen" cadence to mind, without being technically that.

A moody waltz of a third movement leads to the final theme and variations. An extended introduction -- another thematic "skeleton," although it deals with the tail end of the theme -- which leads to a folk-like melody in a minor mode, a Shostakovich original. Each instrument gets a shot at its own variation. The variations get more and more elaborate -- one of my favorites, a variation where the theme is shredded and fought over with the upper instruments against the lower -- as tension builds to a power-packed climax, with the violins wailing of the cello's growling triplets. The steam seems to go out of the climax almost instantly, with a pastoral variation in a major key. The movement softens and gives the impression of a quiet ending just around the bend. However, Shostakovich pulls a switcheroo by bringing back the theme, this time as a confidently assertive chorale to wind things up.

One of the composer's favorites, the String Quartet No. 3 (1946) reflects more directly on both the war and on the postwar Soviet Union, as Stalin inaugurated another series of purges in order to tighten even further his hold on the state. Shostakovich gave each of its five movements a subtitle: Allegretto, "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm"; Moderato con moto, "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"; Allegro non troppo, "The forces of war unleashed"; Adagio, "Homage to the dead"; Moderato, "The eternal question -- Why? And for what?"

The quartet deals largely in emotional paradox from its opening. The composer wants "calm unawareness," but the music has a very troubling undercurrent, particularly the dark second subject. Furthermore, the development (which includes a double fugue) erodes the near-Prokofievian blitheness of the first subject. Yet by the recap, sunny weather has returned.

The "rumblings of unrest" take the form of a heavy-footed Ländler, complete with such gonzo effects as glissandi at the end of phrases and high, pianissimo pizzicati. The music intensifies until it suddenly sags, and a tired version of its opening concludes the movement.

The following movement lets slip the dogs of war. Critics have written a lot about this quartet and this movement in particular, particularly as to what it means. I have no idea what went on in Shostakovich's mind, but I understand the movement as a savage quick march, although much of it proceeds in five beats, rather than four. One hears the heavy tramp of boots in fortissimo chords and, in the trio, an infernal progress in very soft pizzicati striking up march time. One of the players in the premiere described the trio as satirical commentary on a Prussian parade ground. It's not far-fetched, but to me the overwhelming emotion is white-hot rage. Again, the Eighth Symphony, perhaps Shostakovich's greatest symphonic statement on World War II, appeared not too long before, and it seems to have affected most of the movements in this quartet. Here the connection to that symphonic world is obvious.

Now, the quartet grieves in a combination lament and slow dead march. It begins with a declamatory dotted-rhythm motif. A folk-tinged lament softens this idea, and the declamatory melts into the lament. The dotted motif gets played by every instrument and finally settles on the viola, with a funeral-march rhythm in the cello. This leads directly to the finale.

Whether the finale bears the philosophical weight Shostakovich imposed by his subtitle, each listener must decide. For me, no, but that doesn't turn it into schlock. I experience it as a cri du coeur, as the composer tries to make sense of existential randomness -- a surrealistic journey. The harmony begins up in the air, with a questioning theme in a jaunty 6/8. We then get a dance theme, characteristic of the composer, over an oom-pa-pa-pa oom-pa-pa-pa accompaniment in the lower strings. Another dance-like theme follows, this time in a surprising major key. The questioning takes off again, this time in an ever-intensifying counterpoint. This climaxes in the dotted-rhythm of the previous movement. At the finish, the questioning theme, energy spent, sounds out over a quiet F-major chord. I can't really call it a conceptual "safe haven" for the movement, because it doesn't begin to resolve the emotional conflicts the music brings up, but even though it brings no comfort, this final movement surely ranks as one of the composer's most powerful.

Nevertheless, the quartet received a cool reception and very few subsequent performances after its premiere, at least in the Soviet Union. The government and, I suspect, most of the public wanted something less sphinx-like -- perhaps a celebration of the glorious victory of the Soviet people over Fascism. It was certainly a victory, but one that came with terrible suffering and loss. Shostakovich reminded people who were in the mood to forget and to simplify. Incidentally, the Communist Party singled this work out and banned it in its 1948 denunciation of Shostakovich.

The String Quartet No. 4 appeared in 1949, at a perilous time in the composer's career. Stalin had reinstated the Great Terror, with a huge dollop of anti-Semitism thrown in, and which culminated in the "doctors' plot" of 1952. Several of the composer's friends -- Weinberg among them -- either had been or were about to be thrown down a deep, dark hole, and Shostakovich found himself on shaky ground. He received no big commissions and was reduced to providing utility music for films and the circus. Indeed, the quartet's official premiere did not occur until 1953, a few months after Stalin's death.

In contrast to the two previous quartets, the Fourth eschews the epic. It also shows great concentration of thought. It opens with a "naïve" folk-like theme, which very quickly becomes psychologically ambiguous. A second theme, searching in nature and related to the main idea of the Third Quartet's finale, sounds, underscoring a troubling undercurrent. The second movement begins as a tender lament, again with a folkish theme, but after the exposition the instruments begin to crescendo and climb to their highest registers. It sounds like a scream. Once it comes out, the music dims and the mood of the opening returns.

The third movement, a rondo, is a furtive "galloping" toccata, a fingerprint of this composer. The music, almost never rising above soft, toys with the nerves, as if waiting for the police to bust through the door at any moment. It leads directly to the last movement.

I would have said that in this quartet, Shostakovich abandons the public tone for the personal. Janácek's "From My Life" would have fit this score very well. However, that tells only half the truth. Russian music symphonic tradition, going back at least to Tchaikovsky, follows a program. Most Soviet composers, including those not writing specifically official works, used their art to explain the times. They often lied, of course, and perhaps to themselves. In this very intimate quartet's last movement, Shostakovich inserts his own "Jewish" themes -- their mere presence a bold action, since the Party actively imprisoned, slandered ("cosmopolitan" was code for "Jewish"), and killed Jews, especially prominent ones. On Stalin's order, the secret police murdered the Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, Weinberg's father-in-law, in the street. I think it not a stretch to regard Shostakovich's themes as having more than musical significance. However, I don't believe that we can zero in on that meaning in the absence of more explicit information.

After a short introduction carried mainly by the viola and pizzicati from the other strings, the first theme, a dismal rustic dance, appears over an oom-pa pizzicato bass. A second, slightly more singing theme then sounds. Shostakovich then intensifies these ideas mainly by increasing the counterpoint, as well as the dynamic level. He adds grotesque elements: the strings cackle and chirp. After a climax, the music seems to fall to exhaustion, and it ends softly on a held pedal note and out-of-key plucks. Notice that Shostakovich has also used this gambit of climax-and-fade in at least the two previous movements. Hope and anger both build until they can't be held, leaving us emotionally wiped and uncertain. Much of Shostakovich's later work continues and deepens this vein -- the record of neurosis under heavy political repression.

To me, Prokofiev differs from Shostakovich as Homer does from Euripides. Prokofiev looks mainly outward, Shostakovich mainly inward. You can make a fairly good guess about Shostakovich's personality from the music. Prokofiev gives very little about himself away. The Prokofiev Quartet No. 2, like the Shostakovich Third, belongs to the composer's war work, finished in 1941. The government had evacuated Prokofiev and other Soviet artists to the Caucasus, and Prokofiev had become attracted to local ethnic music. After the intense subjectivism of Shostakovich, the Prokofiev quartet comes as a bit of a shock. The folk elements come across as bits of exoticism, as they do in Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. The score itself has more in common with French music of the Twenties and Thirties than with wartime Soviet music. Nevertheless, it's a marvelous work, too seldom played, filled with arresting and gorgeous ideas. The full string sound occasionally wanders into thick, and, unlike a Shostakovich quartet, the individuality of each instrument is often lost. However, these are nits in a colorful and exciting score.

The quartet opens with a modified sonata on three main ideas: a wide-leaping declamatory figure, demanding attention; a joyful marching theme; a lyrical idea. Prokofiev develops the first and third, but reserves the second for exposition and recap. The development is less assertive than the outer sections, with more dissonance and harmonic waywardness. It's toy-grotesque in the same way as the March from Love of Three Oranges. The second movement is another Russian "lament by the river," in A-B-A song form. The first part consists of a brief introduction and then a beautifully tender melody. The second part dances, with lots of fancy bowing techniques, and the third returns to the yearning lover. One more distinction from Shostakovich: Prokofiev makes no attempt to connect his sections thematically, according to standard compositional practice. One section basically follows another without preparation or even consistency of mood. However, it doesn't matter. The tunes and their settings are that good. The rondo last movement is unusual. Its main idea varies the opening of the first movement, and the mood of theme and episodes leans to sunny. However, suddenly we find ourselves in a world of trouble. The writing becomes more trenchant and genuinely powerful as the air darkens. Eventually, however, the clouds clear for a return to the opening material, but not until those ideas fight their way through the residual gloom.

Knowing that the Cedille label promotes music and musicians from the Chicago area, my first thought was a stupid one: What is the label doing with the Pacifica Quartet? It turns out they teach and play as the residence quartet at two Illinois universities.

From the first notes, this group had my attention. They make both the Shostakovich and the Prokofiev quartets speak like no other group I've heard, including the Borodin and the Beethoven (the ensembles who first championed Shostakovich), as well as the Emerson. Pacifica communicates like crazy while conveying the narrative structure. I hungrily await the next CD in the series. Furthermore, the recorded sound blows me away -- the best, most natural string quartet sound I've heard. The clarity impresses, as does the lack of obvious dial-twiddling. Highly recommended.

S.G.S. (September 2012)