SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 13 in b-flat, op. 138; String Quartet No. 14 in F#, op. 142; String Quartet No. 15 in e-flat, op. 144. SCHNITTKE: String Quartet No. 3.
Pacifica Quartet.
CEDILLEe CDR 90000 145 TT: 104:28.

Dark last thoughts. Currently, the Shostakovich quartets occupy a position in the repertory very near to the Beethoven cycle and seem to have displaced the Bartóks and the Schoenbergs. I'm not sure why. After all, Shostakovich had not concentrated on the string quartet until after he had met the composer Mieczslaw Weinberg, roughly at the beginning of World War II. Weinberg persuaded him of the possibilities of the genre as a vehicle for personal expression, and World War II gave him something to express. If the symphonies were public posters, often subject to the whims of party hacks, the string quartets functioned more like diary entries. Even so, western critics tended to view Shostakovich as a facile hack for a very long time. This began to change around the appearance of the Symphony No. 10 (1953) and accelerated as Shostakovich became a symbol for anti-Soviet resistance, with works like the Symphonies 13 (1962) and 14 (1969). Critics took him far more seriously, the late works in particular. Fortunately, his music could stand the scrutiny, and the revision upward extended to earlier scores.
The String Quartets 11-14 comprise a set, sometimes called "the quartet of quartets," each one written for a particular member of the Beethoven String Quartet, Shostakovich's favorites, who premiered them. He filled each with "star" passages for the dedicatee, all characteristic of the player's instrumental style and strengths. Shostakovich dedicated No. 13 (1970) to the violist, Vadim Borisovsky, and No. 14 (1973) to the cellist, Sergei Shrinsky.
String Quartet No. 13, in a single-movement arch form (ABA), begins with an extended viola solo, full of themes using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Shostakovich does not use these in strict dodecaphonic fashion, but rather as melodies made up of cells which he breaks down and recombines into new melodies -- in short, the procedure of most classical composers since Bach at least and especially true of Beethoven. Two laments enclose a quick section. Apparently, it took Shostakovich a bit of time to decide the ruling metaphor of the outer movements. He had begun with the idea of an opening allegretto, but work on the Soviet film King Lear had convinced him to go with dirge. He himself pointed out emotive affinities with Mussorgsky's cycle Songs and Dances of Death (which he orchestrated), especially with the final song, "The Field Commander." One can look on Shostakovich's score as a defiance of death as well as confusion about its nature -- a bleak outlook, on the whole. The themes of the first section derive their shapes, I feel, from Wagner's Tristan prelude. As the first movement proceeds, more Shostakovich-like "folk" elements slip in, including something close to Russian Orthodox chant and particularly an insistent rhythm on one note, which leads to the central fugue-like section. An unusual feature of this part is the composer's specification that the backs of the instruments be struck sharply on their backs with the wood of the bow. Many quartets, understandably, don't want to mar their expensive instruments and either ignore the instruction or find some workaround. The insistent rhythm returns and leads to another singing of the lament. Solos weep. The ensemble chants. One hears hints of Boris Godunov, especially the "misery of the Russian people" motive. A sustained section of chorale gives way to the viola alone, accompanied by the occasional thwack on a violin's back. The movement seems to want to die out, but Shostakovich surprises us with several instruments in stressful crescendo on a single note. It reminds of Shakespeare's evocation of "The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns." One might add Whitman's "no map there, nor guide." As we stare into heaven knows what, the quartet ends.
Appropriate for a quartet dedicated to a cellist, the instrument receives the spotlight at important points in the Quartet No. 14, although in general without the loss of musical interest in the other strings. The score falls into three movements, the last two played without a break. The first movement begins with a repeated F# on the violin, almost like soft drum taps, followed by a sprightly folk-like theme on the cello. All ideas in the movement occur in the opening measures. The movement has a game-playing quality as instruments toss motifs back and forth, until a passage for unaccompanied viola, which announces that something serious lurks behind the élan. The music picks up a bit until a passage for cello alone. Again, the mood turns sober and leads to a quiet ending, as if the instruments let out a long breath. The second movement begins with something like a melancholy love song for the violin -- kvetching by the Neva -- but the lyricism disguises most of its basis in passacaglia. The song occasionally gets support from the rest of the quartet in chant. The solo violin continues and the cello joins in with the theme but then entwines with the violin in a long conversation. This leads to a pizzicato section where the music, still dominated mainly by the cello, takes a Romantic turn. The composer referred to it as his "Italian bit." Gradually, the music reduces to a repeating half-step and the drum-taps, the latter from the first violin this time. The drum-tap rhythm carries into the next movement. First, the instruments take up a theme that "spells" (in Russian and Italian solfege) the name "Seryozha" (the diminutive of Sergei, the cellist dedicatee). The music comes closest to "normal" Shostakovich, although the fragmented string quartet writing is far from usual. Eventually, we hear the theme of "Seryozha, khoroshiy moy" (Seryozha, my beloved) from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. We also get echoes of the love song from the second movement. The "Italian bit" returns and the quartet ends on a long diminuendo, with the cello above the first violin. Because of the lyricism, most writers consider this the most accessible of Shostakovich's late quartets. However, I find it emotionally elusive. Everything seems to hang in the air, without any real resolution.
Shostakovich's final quartet, No. 15, is a perfect sphinx. In many ways, it brings the entire cycle to a fitting conclusion while remaining the oddest formally. It consists of six movements, all adagios of different characters, played without pause: "Elegy," "Serenade," "Intermezzo," "Nocturne," "Funeral March," and "Epilogue." Shostakovich risks a lot artistically -- losing the listener, for one -- in producing 36 minutes of slow music and in forgoing contrasts in tempo, a major way of putting variety into the music. The durations of individual range from roughly one-and-a-half minutes to nearly twelve. Because of its position as the composer's last, writers have eagerly tried to find Metaphysical Truths from the Great Artist. I usually hesitate to join in, at least to the point of specifying those truths, because music, though expressive, is inarticulate except in its own terms. Nevertheless, the quartet does seem to have a lot to do with death, with allusions and conventional musical tropes pointing the way.
The "Elegy" first movement begins with a slow fugue on a chant, evoking the Russian Orthodox Church. The subject begins with repeated notes. After all four instruments complete the subject, Shostakovich drops the fugue part and proceeds in quasi-sonata form. The second subject rises through an arpeggio, usually major. From there, these themes develop and interact. The movement barely rises above a murmur.
Mini-screams begin the second movement, "Serenade," as each solo instrument crescendos on single notes. A serenade is an "evening song" usually sung by a lover to the beloved. However, there is also a strong literary tradition of Death as a lover, wooing the living to surrender. Mussorgsky's "Serenade" from Songs and Dances of Death exemplifies this trope. The single notes form another 12-note theme, hearkening back to the thirteenth quartet. Loud repeated chords, reminiscent of a lover somewhat aggressively tuning his mandolin, interrupt these sequences. Eventually, we get to a more lyrical triple-time passage -- a lumpish waltz -- but this, too, yields to the mini-screams and the violent strumming. As the movement proceeds, with all these elements alternating, another drum-tap rhythm, reminding us of the String Quartet No. 14, comes to the fore, and the idea of this music recollects earlier Shostakovich works, like a kind of biography, begins to dawn -- reflections on a life.
With the lumpish waltz, the cello leads us to the "Intermezzo," the shortest movement in the score, a rhetorical resting point, although not an emotional one. Virtuosic solos over a cello pedal point -- quick notes, a single instrument playing chords -- alternate with the tune-ups from the previous movement. The rapid notes are Shostakovich's way of cheating-but-not-really on his adagios. They introduce rhythmic variety but without creating real movement. The gestures seem static.
The "Nocturne," very characteristic of Shostakovich, nevertheless alludes to certain 19th-century melodic shapes (here, mainly Chopin), much like the String Quartet No. 13. We also hear prominent "rocking" fourths (a fourth up and back down to the original note), which really is a riff off the tuning-up chords. Toward the end, a rocking semitone becomes prevalent (the "woe" motif from Tristan or the Boris motif signifying the "misery of the Russian people"). A new rhythm gets tapped out on accompanying instruments.

This brings us to the "Funeral March," which carries along the new rhythm as muffled drum-taps and sings a long expressive line which features the rocking fourths and half-step. The major theme is arpeggio-based, like "Taps" and "The Last Post." The movement ends on pared-down textures leading to solo instruments.
The "Epilogue" not only sums up, but points beyond itself. A minor chord followed by a rapid passage on the violin opens the movement. The rapid passage recalls the "Interlude," Meanwhile, the fugal theme of the first movement returns, without the fugue, as the rapid notes fade into trill. The rocking fourths again appear. The music returns to the beginning, with different instrumentation and subtle variations. Here, however, the fast notes actually quicken the musical pulse, although briefly. The funeral march comes back even more bleakly. An abridgement of the opening leads to a brief recall of the "Nocturne," while sharply plucked chords link to the "Serenade." The cello sings the funeral theme and takes us to a remarkable close -- a quotation of the end of the Largo of the Sixth Symphony (pointed out by liner note writer Gerard McBurney), itself with references to the introduction to Boris Godunov. I have no idea what it all means, but it remains powerful music. The quartet has many obvious allusions to death and to Shostakovich's own works, especially the late ones, as well as his powerful involvement with Mussorgsky's music. I think of it as a stoic farewell to life and art. I don't know how Shostakovich himself viewed it.
Alfred Schnittke belongs to the generation of composers who succeeded Shostakovich. Such talents also included Edison Denisov, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Sofia Gubaidulina. All wrote powerful music, but to some extent distanced themselves from Shostakovich, at least early in their careers. They had no interest in continuing, even in an in-name-only way, the aesthetic dictates of the Mighty Five and Soviet realism. Although to my ear intensely Russian, they avoid references to folk idioms and take into their technical arsenal the techniques of the "hard" school of western composers like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Berio, and Stockhausen. As he went along, however, Schnittke began to see Shostakovich as a spiritual father. The String Quartet No. 3 shows this new influence in its atmosphere of intimate disquiet, if nothing else.
The quartet is in three movements: slow, fast, slow (shades of Shostakovich's thirteenth!). Three ideas dominate the entire quartet: a cadence the composer identifies as one by the Renaissance composer Orlandus Lassus, from a Stabat mater; the subject from Beethoven's Grosse Fuge; Shostakovich's musical "signature" (DSCH -- in English musical notation, D E-flat C B), which the composer used prominently in several works. The first movement varies and expands these ideas. One of the variations becomes the main idea of an "Agitato" second movement, but all three seeds try to assert themselves in their original form as the agitato progresses. The final movement is a funeral march, again based on variations of both the Lassus and the Beethoven. If anything, the march is even bleaker than the one in Shostakovich's fifteenth. We end in spiritual lassitude. The music, like the Shostakovich quartets, invites metaphysical commentary because it seems to express so much. I can say that with its references to a religious work by Lassus and two late works by Beethoven and Shostakovich, this quartet seems to be "about" last things, but I can't go beyond that.
The Pacifica has recorded the complete cycle (currently available only as a set) gives outstanding performances of all three works. Technically -- tone, balance, articulation, ensemble sensitivity -- no other quartet beats them, not even the Emerson. Indeed, I think they pretty much supersede the Emerson and along with the Beethoven Quartets become the top choices. The Beethoven had a long performance history with the cycle, and Shostakovich loved their accounts. The Pacifica has the advantage of their example. Their readings are both powerful and crystalline. The Beethoven plays the cycle as if they are reading their diaries, the Pacifica as if they are playing monuments of the literature. There's plenty of volts in the Pacifica, but the Beethoven has an edge of urgency. Nevertheless, the Pacifica plays more intimately, and their inclusion of works by Shostakovich's contemporaries, all winningly performed, lend their set extra interest. To me, this is the set to beat.

S.G.S. (August 2018)