In Praise of Shostakovich’s String Quartets: The Carducci String Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London

By John Earls

The string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1977) hold a special place in my heart. At various times they have moved, inspired and consoled me.

Of course, it’s not just me. Wendy Lesser has written an outstanding book about the quartets, Music for Silenced Voices, in which she considers the great Russian composer’s life through the quartets whilst examining the music through a non-musician’s lens.

The quartets have featured amongst the Desert Island Discs selections of castaways as varied as Sheila Hancock, Tariq Ali and Marcus du Sautoy.

Stephen Joseph has written a powerful, honest and compelling essay on the composer, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, and how his music helped with Joseph’s mental illness, which includes a section on the “exceptional phenomenon” that is the Eighth Quartet.

Shostakovich (seen above with the Beethoven Quartet) is renowned for the range of his symphonic work. He completed his first symphony in 1926 and his final symphony (there were also fifteen) was completed in 1971. He worked under the Soviet system and after early official recognition often fell out of favour with the Communist regime including denunciation during the Stalin era. The quartets were written over the period 1938-1974 and are often said to reveal a more personal side of Shostakovich in a way that his symphonies, which were subject to greater scrutiny by the Soviet authorities, don’t. One shouldn’t overstretch this, but there is certainly a deep sense of his own voice in the quartets.

There are a number of recordings of the complete cycle of quartets and amongst the most cited are those by the Emerson String Quartet, the Beethoven Quartet and the Borodin Quartet. All are worth your time – the Emersons (recorded before live audiences) being a good place to start:

Meanwhile the Beethovens are of significant interest because of the special relationship they had with the composer (they premiered most of the quartets):

I have a soft spot for the Borodins, who provided my introduction to the quartets (I still have the brilliantly designed box set of recordings from 1978-1983 reissued in 2006 by the Russian Мелодия label)

Wendy Lesser writes that Shostakovich always knew how his music should sound and her book contains a wonderful story from Valentin Berlinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet, concerning one of the  quartets that illustrates this perfectly. Recalling preparing for a performance of the Third Quartet in the company of Shostakovich some years after its premiere, Berlinsky states:

“I said…’we’ve given it some thought…It seems to us that pizzicato [rather than arco] sounds better here.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he hastily interrupted, pizzicato is much better, but please play arco all the same.'”

Of course, each of the quartets can be appreciated as an individual piece of music in its own right. But there is also something about hearing them played in one chronological series that gives something of a narrative thread. Lesser also writes of the “vital power” of Shostakovich’s quartets in live performance “that makes any interpretation seem incomplete until it is played before an audience”. Which brings me to the incredible feat that was the Carducci String QuartetMatthew Denton (violin), Michelle Fleming (violin), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola) and Emma Denton (cello) – performing the full cycle of all fifteen quartets in chronological order in five magnificent concerts over two days on the weekend of 22-23 January 2022 at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Total admiration must go to the Carduccis for the dedication and application sustained over the two days and evident from the very first concert starting at 11:30 in the morning on the Saturday. Comprising of the first four quartets, it was for me probably the pick of the (pretty consistently impressive) bunch. The First Quartet was bright before the opening of the Second Quartet gripped with its bold first movement and a second movement featuring some absolutely yearning and sorrowful first violin. The stabbing ‘forces of war unleashed’ (to cite Shostakovich’s supposedly original subtitle) in the third movement of the Third Quartet was another arresting highlight.

More has been written about the Eighth Quartet than all the others combined and it has acquired a special status not least because, although dedicated ‘to the victims of fascism and war’, it is often considered to be Shostakovich’s memorial to himself, featuring as it does not only quotations from some of his other works, but his famous ‘DSCH’ musical monogram. It ended the second of the concerts with the Carduccis giving full musical and dramatic effect to the fevered second movement and forceful fourth movement.

Indeed, there were times when watching the Carduccis perform was just as gripping as listening to them play. This was the case in the ‘furioso’ second movement of the Tenth Quartet, which was near-exhausting to watch and featured in the third concert of the series which opened Sunday’s proceedings, as did the Eleventh Quartet with a deft dealing of its repetitions.

Picture (c) John Earls

The fourth concert gave particular effect to Shostakovich’s inventiveness showcasing the Twelfth Quartet with its mixing of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism and more familiar harmony as well as the unsettling Thirteenth Quartet with the Carduccis opting to tap the fingerboards of their instruments with their fingers rather than bodies of the instruments with bows for the percussive elements. The Thirteenth Quartet also featured some enthrallingly eerie sliding on the viola as well as a wonderfully dramatic finale.

The final concert comprised of the last two quartets ending with the Fifteenth Quartet. The longest of the quartets it was completed in 1974 when Shostakovich was in hospital having been diagnosed with lung cancer. Its six desolate slow movements give a sense of mortality and the lack of a dedication has led to a notion that Shostakovich may have written it as an unofficial elegy for himself. It was played with appropriate respect and sensitivity, something that was recognised by the sustained silence from the audience following its – and the cycle’s – completion before generous and well-earned applause.

This remarkable series of concerts was a precious reminder of what an exceptional body of work Shostakovich’s string quartets are and how any one of them can stand on its own. But there is definitely something special about hearing them together and the Carducci String Quartet in this unforgettable weekend of concerts demonstrated how both hold true. However, it is the full cycle that I want and what I will be asking for on Desert Island Discs.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

posted on 27 January 2022

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