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.
Cedille Records CDR 90000 130 TT: 129:17 (2 CDs).
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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
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
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.
S.G.S. (September 2012)