, June 2011
Newton Classics is one of the latest companies to spoil us by making available the riches of the majors’ back catalogues. Here we have a straight reissue of an outstanding DG disc from the nineties, but with a new booklet note, in English, French and German, by Arnold Whittall.
The Fourth Quartet opens, as Whittall observes, in pastoral calm, a rare enough event in Shostakovich. This brief movement passes on to a second, in slow triple time, where the atmosphere is more sombre, yet equivocal, the listener left unsure. And so it proves for the third movement too, restless and nervous despite the apparent genial nature of much of the musical material. Shostakovich in Jewish guise emerges in the final movement, the longest of the four. A two-note motif, rising first, then falling, dominates this movement, which rises to a dramatic and sonorous climax of unisons and pizzicati before subsiding into a kind of tranquillity, a long-held note accompanied by pizzicato chords. The last of these allows the work to close in the major key, but the listener is left, as so often with Shostakovich, with the feeling that nothing is resolved. We are not even sure we know what he was saying to us. The work was dedicated to the memory of the composer’s artist friend, Pyotr Vilyams, which might have been enough to justify its overall sombre tone. But the climate wasn’t right, and the Jewish connotations of the finale added to the problem. Thus this superb and deeply moving quartet, completed in December 1949, was withheld and only received its first performance in December 1953.
If the Fourth Quartet is equivocal in nature, the Eleventh is even more so. The shortest of the quartets, its seven sections play without a break. The important theme from which much of the thematic material grows is first intoned by the cello in the thirteenth bar, and the disembodied tone of the three other instruments at this point is very affecting indeed. The work is full of ostinato figures, and the Hagen Quartet tend to bring these well into the foreground. This can take some getting used to, but is all of a piece with a view of the work that seems to want to emphasise its harsh, unremitting nature rather than its charm and admittedly quirky elegance. The first violinist, Lukas Hagen is brilliant in the non-stop semiquavers of the short “Etude”, and the next to last section, “Elegy”, is given with all the lugubrious weight it requires. In the closing section, with the four instruments muted and the pianissimo indication scrupulously respected, the Hagens adopts what sounds like a dangerously slow tempo to the point that the music becomes so fragile as to threaten to disintegrate completely. Checking reveals that the tempo is as close as one can get to the composer’s metronome mark, though few other quartets in my experience have had the courage to put this to the test.
The Fourteenth Quartet begins in genial, almost playful mood, but the first movement soon visits some pretty anguished places. The slow movement is a long outpouring of melody, harrowingly intense for the most part, and ultimately leading nowhere. The finale is very puzzling, passing through a series of moods, including a passage early on remarkable for its apparently unprovoked wildness. The work ends quietly, however, coming to rest on a chord of F sharp major, which may be a resolution of sorts—it is indeed a musical one—but once again the listener is left pondering over the journey the composer has taken. This work, like the other two on the disc, offers no solutions.
The Hagen Quartet recorded another disc of three Shostakovich quartets, but did not, I think, complete a whole cycle. These beautifully recorded performances are as fine as any in the catalogue. Whilst one might prefer this or that movement from this or that group, no collector wanting these particular works and purchasing this disc, especially given the absurdly cheap price, can go wrong.