Recorded 13-17 January 2006, these three quartets reveal the emotional turbulence and dire pessimism of their creator, beginning with the postwar, five-movement 1949 Quartet in F Major, with its bitter contrasts of emotion cast in neoclassical garb. At several moments in this unnerving piece, we are in the throes of a danse macabre, an eerie descent into the depths. Strong viola (Lesley Robertson) and cello (Christopher Costanza) presence in the second movement, with striking punctuations from the two violins. Originally, Shostakovich had provided a series of programmatic titles for the quartet, invoking visions of future cataclysm. The brutal Scherzo is ferocious Mahler, another jarring totentanz in slashing rhythms. The last movement proceeds as a passacaglia, posing eternal questions of Whither? Anger, melancholy and bile froth in waves of subdued emotion; and only at the finale does the music dissipate, a shadow of itself. So much for my naïve optimism, sayeth Shostakovich.
Shostakovich composed his first quartet in a minor key, the Seventh, in 1960. It is also the composer’s shortest quartet. A bouncing three-note figure announced by Geoff Nuttall’s violin proves integral, and the spare music becomes increasingly tense and dark. The spirit of Bartok is nigh, interior passions in concentrated forms and laconic gestures. Striking effects in pizzicato and hard attacks on the E string. The metallic sensibility is clearly at odds with the heartfelt anguish that runs through the first movement. The ensuing nocturne has a keening, obsessive delicacy. Slides and harmonics increase our desire to read some Kafka into this winter’s journey. Wicked chords open a nasty fugue for the finale, interspersed with moments from the nocturne, later becoming a mordant waltz. Shades of Bartok’s Fifth Quartet. The St. Lawrence players might be about to fry their instruments, so feverish is the musical execution. This music, too, disintegrates into the major key; yes, but few would call this a happy ending.
The so-called Dresden Quartet (No. 8, 1960) is the composer’s self-proclaimed obituary. Some listeners know this music from Rudolf Barshai’s transcription for string orchestra. In five movements, the music pays homage to Beethoven, but it integrates prison songs, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the First Cello Concerto, and an anagram: DSCH, into its structure that makes us see Shostakovich as a victim of his troubled times. The St. Lawrence players pounce on this music with a fervor of deep conviction, clearly a spirited homage to the composer’s powerful, tormented spirit, for his centennial year. Superbly recorded by Mark Willsher at the super-low-noise-floor Skywalker Sound Stage, Marin County, California.
— Gary Lemco