Classical CD Reviews

The Soviet Experience = Vol. IV – SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets 13, 14, 15; SCHNITTKE: String Quartet 3 – Pacifica Quartet—Cedille (2 CDs)

The Pacifica Quartet completes their Shostakovich cycle—adding Schnittke’s Third Quartet—in performances that express the essence of Russian music in the 20th century.

Published on December 23, 2013

The Soviet Experience = Vol. IV – SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets 13, 14, 15; SCHNITTKE: String Quartet 3 – Pacifica Quartet—Cedille (2 CDs)

The Soviet Experience = Vol. IV – SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets 13, 14, 15; SCHNITTKE: String Quartet 3 – Pacifica Quartet—Cedille CDR 90000 145, (2 CDs) 45:12, 59:16 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

This is the last installment of the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle named “The Soviet Experience” because it adds one quartet by other Russian composers (Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke) to each release. Although there are many performances of the complete Shostakovich quartets available, the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of these masterpieces is one of the best. Their sheer brilliance of execution, the emotional depth of their interpretation and the stunning sound make this a most desirable set.

While Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies were his public statements restricted by Soviet political and musical demands, his 15 string quartets and their under-the-radar premieres by his close friends—Beethoven Quartet—gave him a chance to freely express his emotional and musical soul. Shostakovich lived a tortured life, escaping the horrors of World War II, barely surviving the creative restrictions and death threats of authoritarian Soviet regimes, only to live his last years—two heart attacks, a broken leg and lung cancer—in physical pain. His last three quartets speak eloquently about his journey from life to death. They are profound expressions of a great composer who bares his inner psyche at the highest level of musical excellence.

One is aware of the Angel of Death hovering over the Shostakovich’s 13th Quartet (1970), but the level of musical creativity and sheer instrumental ripeness balance the dark emotions with intellectual substance. Shostakovich dedicated it to the Beethoven Quartet’s retired violist, Vadim Borisovsky. Violist Masumi Per Rostad plays the opening of this one movement work in such a beautiful a manner that the desolation is even more heartrending. The searing upper violins portend horror in the first section, yet the middle section is jazzy and sarcastic rather than deathly, with the tapping of the wooden part of the bow on the belly of the instrument (col legno) an empty jab. A scary, ghoulish jig follows. The solo viola of the last section and the col legno wooden hits are heartbreaking punctuations to the hollow loneliness that ends with a forte moan. When Benjamin Britten heard a private performance of this quartet in 1971, he was “moved and shaken, and kissed Shostakovich’s hand.”

A second heart attack in 1971 initiated a compositional dry spell that was broken in 1973 after Shostakovich heard a wonderful performance of his 15th Symphony by Yevgeny Mavrinsky. He was so happy to be composing again that he finished his 14th Quartet (1973) in a month. Despite his physical infirmities, it’s a relatively happy work. The dedicatee was cellist Sergei Shirinsky of the Beethoven Quartet, an old friend. The cello’s restive unease is the underlying mood of the first movement, but it begins with a lively conversation between the cello and violin. There is great beauty in the Adagio, but the happy mood is replaced by a hesitant melancholy, and abruptly Shostakovich inserts an “off center waltz” that briefly amuses after which the mood darkens, as if the composer is reminiscing about what cannot be re-lived. The final movement starts aggressively, but the cello returns us to a mournful and alluring meditation that leaves us moved and complete. Shirinsky, 70 at the time and also in bad health, commented upon hearing that Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to him, “Well, I can die now.”

By late 1973 Shostakovich’s health had deteriorated further, and it is amazing that he could even write the 15th Quartet (1974) with his hands. It consists of six slow movements—ElegySerenadeIntermezzoNocturneFuneral MarchEpilogue. The sections vacillate between resistance and acceptance of death. Is the Elegy to himself? If so, it’s tender, resigned, and sad—for the loss of life rather than his own. Serenade asks why to death and answers in slashing shards of crescendos—angry opposition. Nocturne is peaceful acceptance—an ethereal and almost unearthly dirge. Funeral March is a procession of instrumental solos—searing memories of the past. The Epilogue is series of trills interspersed with meditative strains and single pizzicatos—eerie and upsetting. Although it speaks of death, there is much beauty in this quartet that makes it bittersweet and moving.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was one of the next generation of composers (Denisov, Gubaidulina, Part, Silvestrov were some of the others) that followed Shostakovich. After spending two years in Vienna absorbing past masters, Schnittke returned to Moscow and developed polystylism, juxtaposing the music of past and present. “The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so,” he once said. He was hounded and isolated by the same Soviet totalitarianism that debilitated Shostakovich, but wrote 70 film scores in 30 years, music that was connected to the sociological, cultural and psychological life of his time. After several serious strokes, his music became more serious and bleak, yet he courageously persisted in writing it.

Listening to Schnittke’s Third String Quartet (1983) is like traveling along a road that turns into several alternate routes where the anxiety of becoming lost is ameliorated by familiar road signs that continually reappear. The road signs are broken phrases from Orlando de Lassus’s Stabat Mater, Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue for String Quartet, Op. 133 and a motif that was Shostakovich’s musical signature, the notes D-E flat-C-B (an abbreviation of “Dmitri Shostakovich”) that the composer used in many of his late works. While the work is organized classically (ABA), the road signs are the expressive opposite—dissonantly contorted, stretched, inventively connected into a work that is fascinating, beautiful and infinitely creative.

The Pacifica Quartet plays the works on these CDs with passion and impeccable balance, plumbing the depths of the Russian soul. This is a fitting conclusion to a great set of Shostakovich Quartets and their Russian companions that reveal the essence of Soviet music in the mid and late 20th-century.

—Robert Moon

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