SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets, Piano Quintet – Artemis String Quartet with Elisabeth Leonskaja: – Erato 

by | Apr 26, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 92; Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57; String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108 – Elisabeth Leonskaja, piano/ Artmeis String Quartet – Erato 019029554076, 76:29 (3/22/19) [Distr. by Warner Classics] ****:

Shostakovich composed his Fifth Quartet in 1952, not long after the death of Stalin. Though the cultural thaw lasted briefly, Shostakovich could express himself more freely, utilizing quotes fellow composer Galina Ulstvoskaya’s Clarinet Trio and many of his own works, like the First Violin Concerto, that had been suppressed under Soviet Realism. In 1950, Shostakovich had been in Leipzig to help celebrate the Bach bi-centennial, and that contrapuntal master’s influence would come to dominate Shostakovich composition throughout the remainder of his creative life. The D-S-C-H motif, an acronym for the composer – in the spirit of B-A-C-H – opens the viola’s statement at the quartet’s opening. The acronym and the Ulstvoskaya motif remind us that Shostakovich proposed that Galina become his second wife, but she had rejected his offer; nevertheless, the intricate counterpoints of the first movement, Allegro non troppo, abound in permutations of both the Clarinet Trio tune and the D-S-C-H motif in a series of character sketches a la Schumann, creating a teasing and seductive tension in the music.  The first violin brings the fevered movement to a conclusion with a sustained high note (on F), the other strings pizzicato.

The heart of the quartet – Andante – Andantino – though brief, comes in B minor, led by the viola (Gregor Sigl), a nostalgic motif that invites quotes from Quartet No. 3 and Violin Concerto No. 1, voices repressed during the Stalin regime. Here, the musical landscape remains bleak, with the notes seeming to dissipate, lacking any sense of romance.  We feel as though we were in Limbo, a twilight world awaiting some sign of possible regeneration.  The Moderato – Allegretto – Andante last movement in B-flat brings a waltz, but such consolation yields to tumult and violence. Stringent harmonies in counterpoint cry out, not the least of which emanate from the cello. Whatever “ghostly” figures danced together prior, their shadows now appear to lament, even a bit mirthfully in acerbic irony. The upper strings hold long notes while the cello (Eckart Runge) traces some wistful figures (morendo) that ensue after Vineta Sareika’s plangent first violin.

For their first Shostakovich album (rec. June and July 2018), the Artemis Quartet specifically wanted pianist Elisabeth Leonskaya for their collaborator, and the 1940 Piano Quintet makes a perfect vehicle for their respective talents. The Soviet regime considered chamber music a “bourgeois” activity, but Shostakovich created a work that would serve him personally as a touring piece, and its popular success disgruntled the authorities, who felt compelled to grant the work a Category One award among the Stalin Prizes. The first movement Prelude: Lento prominently features the keyboard, set in a clear G minor.  The setting, obviously Baroque in character, limpidly evokes a world well detached from Soviet politics. A passionate theme arises that longs for an aesthetic or romantic universe. A motive from the Prelude will supply the material for the following movement, an intimate and extended, contrapuntal Fugue: Adagio. The sonority of this second movement proceeds from muted exclamations to a striking emotional outburst, virtually “symphonic” in expression.

Portrait Shostakovich

Dimitri Shostakovich

The Scherzo: Allegretto offers an ironic sort of relief with its manic, skipping rhythm, which some commentators perceive to be a loutish depiction of Stalin’s thugs. The humor, spicy in the manner of Haydn and earthy Beethoven, has Leonskaya in fine fettle as she breezes through her runs and pungent chords.  The Intermezzo: Lento returns to a gentler, lyrical mode of expression, meditative, as shared by first violin and viola over the cello pizzicato. Leonskaya will join with the strings, appassionata, for a vivid moment, an anguished march of searing intensity. A kind of lyrical Bach opens the last movement, Finale: Allegretto, which, too, has its own sense of forward, martial propulsion. The writing seems close to the First Piano Concerto for power and playfulness, a sense of dramatic closure. The collegno taps from the strings come as a shock against Leonskaya’s piano legato. The dynamic subdues, perhaps allowing the composer to express a sense of consolation in his otherwise tormented universe.

The Seventh String Quartet of 1960 had its premiere by the Beethoven String Quartet, the most powerful influence in the Shostakovich chamber music idiom. Quite condensed and the briefest of all 15 Shostakovich quartets, this F-sharp minor Quartet contains nostalgic reminiscence of the composer’s first wife, Nina Vassilyeva Varzar, who had died in 1954 of undetected colon cancer.  The Allegretto permits first violin and cello some expressive dialogue, while the second movement, Lento, has the first violin sing plaintively above accompaniment from the second violin (Anthea Kreston). The emotional tenor of the work remains solemnly valedictory in character.  The Allegro finale inverts the first subject from movement one, although the sudden jointure (attacca) to a furious fugato indicates an emotional strife we might attribute to impassioned Bartok or the Beethoven Op. 95. The combination of rebellion and nostalgia – here in the form of a late waltz – attracted the Artemis Quartet to these selected works, what they call “the great tension between rhythmic dynamism and unusually tender inwardness.”  The fine sonics owe their effect to Christoph Franke.

–Gary Lemco

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