“The Soviet Experience Volume II” = SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 1 in C, Op. 49; No. 2 in A, Op. 68; No. 3 in F, Op. 73; No. 4 in D, Op. 83; PROKOFIEV: String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op. 92 – Pacifica Quartet – Cedille 90000 130 (2 CDs), 75:37, 53:40 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
This is the second volume of what is presumably a series covering the complete Shostakovich string quartets along with some selected Russian miscellaneous quartets as well from the Soviet period. The Soviet Experience is a 16-month exposition of arts showcase from those who labored under the Politburo of the Soviet Union, being presented in Chicago under the auspices of the University of Chicago, starting back in 2010 and ending this year, and was inspired by the Pacifica Quartet’s plan to give all of Shostakovich’s quartets in 2010-2011, a city premiere. It is designed to bring together all branches of the arts in order to give a realistic presentation of the life, achievements, and struggles of those who lived during that period. Cedille decided to capture some of the magic, and the results could very well be close to definitive, or at least in the top three or four.
The first volume included Quartets 5-8 along with a Miaskovsky quartet (No. 13); here we have the four earlier and first quartets along with Prokofiev’s Second. The First is very classical, short (15 minutes) and contained, a beauty of concentrated expression in a very concise model. No. 2 is much more expansive, done six years later and completely devoid of the angst and sometimes grotesqueries found in his other war compositions (1944). This is a symphonic-like work in the form of a suite.
The Third Quartet is easily the greatest here and one of the most famous. Despite the opening movement’s apparent sardonic wit and classical exposition that is closely allied to the Ninth Symphony (which it followed chronologically), it is more on the model of the five-movement Eighth Symphony, and the titles of the movements are revealing, though we cannot be sure of exactly what. Was he attempting to avoid inquiries by authorities, describing the horrors of WWII, or listing the future anticipatory machinations of Stalin? At any rate, “Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm”, “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation”, “The forces of war unleashed”, “Homage to the dead”, and “The eternal question—Why? And for what?” all indicate a seriousness of purpose that finds full force once we enter the last four movements, one of the glories of the entire string quartet catalog.
The Fourth Quartet is in a much lighter mood, and Shostakovich was rather dismissive of it his whole life, considering it a “mere entertainment.” But its Jewish leanings (thematically speaking) are hardly the stuff of amusement considering the times, and it is a work that reflects a great deal of courage and artistic integrity.
Rounding out the program is the Second Quartet of Prokofiev. The composer in 1941 found himself evacuated to the outposts of the Caucuses along with other artists, and ended up attempting to create a work that used oriental melodies along with a firm classical structure. This was the composer’s last attempt in this medium, and though he was never by nature able to wear his true feelings on his sleeve like Shostakovich did, this quartet does contain moments of reflective terror that one can only envisage during wartime. Even so, as in all his works, there is a certain humanitarian temperance that always allows us to walk away in hope.
The Pacifica Quartet is a marvel in this music, recorded with lots of atmosphere at the University of Illinois. As I said earlier, this could very well end up being a definitive series, and I look forward to the next editions.
Haydn Quartets, spanning two decades