About this Recording
8.573466 - SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Chamber Symphonies, Opp. 49a, 110a and 83a (Kiev Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, Yablonsky)

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Three Chamber Symphonies (arr. Rudolf Barshai)


Although it has now come into its own among the seminal cycles of the twentieth century, Shostakovich’s sequence of 15 string quartets is unusual in that almost all of these pieces have been transcribed for larger forces ranging from string ensemble to full orchestra. The catalyst for this was undoubtedly Rudolf Barshai (1924–2010), who enjoyed a professional association with the composer that lasted through to the latter’s death. Barshai established himself as a violist—first as a member of the Borodin Quartet during 1945–53 and in a trio with Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich; latterly as director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 1955 and conducted until his emigration to the West in 1977. Along with commissions, transcription was an integral part of his activity with the orchestra.

The transcription of Shostakovich’s First String Quartet was actually the last of the five such arrangements undertaken by Barshai. Originally subtitled ‘Spring-time’, the piece was written during May to July 1938 and premièred in Leningrad that October by the Glazunov Quartet. Barshai’s transcription for strings was made in 1995 for the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, and duly premièred by them the following year. In this version, the music’s essential naivety and understatement are discreetly underlined by the larger string ensemble.

The first movement opens with a wistful melody heard across strings in affecting harmonies, at length heading into a second theme with its plaintive exchanges over a running motion on lower strings. The opening melody then returns in bittersweet guise, followed by a curtailed reprise of the latter theme that duly leads into a coda with aspects of both themes poignantly combined. The second movement is a series of variations on the brooding, folklike melody heard at the outset. The first of these opens out its harmonic potential accordingly, while the second reaches a brief climax before its successor renders it in notably exquisite terms. This builds to a surprisingly anguished culmination, before the theme is recalled almost literally over pizzicato accompaniment prior to the regretful close. The third movement is a rustling scherzo with deft exchanges for upper strings over a running bass, making way for the trio whose wistful elegance is enhanced by its underlying barcarolle motion. Brief recollections of both themes make for a pert conclusion. The finale opens with a lively theme that bursts forth in energetic terms on its way to the good-natured second theme and more anxious recall of its predecessor prior to the intensive development. Both themes are briefly reprised before the first theme comes to the fore, so rounding off the movement in suitably decisive terms.

The transcription of the Eighth String Quartet was the first of Barshai’s arrangements. The piece was written over just three days in July 1960 while Shostakovich was working on a film score in Dresden; the circumstances of its composition, coupled with the composer’s personal upheavals, doubtless influencing its predominantly sombre tone and highly autobiographical nature—witness quotations from several of his earlier works. It was premièred in Leningrad that October by the Beethoven Quartet and Barshai’s transcription followed soon afterwards.

The opening movement begins with the composer’s ‘DSCH’ motto given in brooding terms, after which the viola unfolds a ruminative melodic line before violins continue with a soulful cantilena. The music briefly takes on a more consoling manner, but the return of the motto brings with it that of the initial mood. Suddenly the second movement erupts with a pulsating theme hurled between upper and lower strings, its fervent progress abetted by the ceaseless underlying motion, and which culminates in a sudden crescendo before being cut off at its height. From here the third movement sets off as a quizzical intermezzo with the motto now transformed into a tripping idea deftly offset by trills in the middle register. The intervening episodes provide more substantial contrast, before the initial idea is resumed against subtly held dissonant chords; subsidiary ideas flitting past as the music winds down to an uncertain pause. The fourth movement now commences with glowering chords which expand into a searing unison threnody, then tension subsides heading into a heartfelt dialogue across the strings, followed by a touching melody for viola prior to the return of the initial chords. The motto gently reasserts itself at the outset of a finale that is otherwise free of quotations or allusions, unfolding in restrained terms towards a conclusion poised between despair and resignation.

The transcription of the Fourth String Quartet is the most interventionist among Barshai’s transcriptions. Shostakovich wrote the piece during April to December 1949, when much of his output was banned from public performance, and though it had several private hearings, the official première did not take place until December 1953 in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet. Barshai’s transcription was first performed in July 1990, when he directed the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast from Cardiff. Unlike the above two works, the string ensemble is supplemented here by single woodwind (with cor anglais) two horns, trumpet, percussion and timpani. The result is to emphasize the sheer expressive immediacy of the composer’s writing, notably the Jewish inflections to the fore in the piece (as in several other Shostakovich works from the later 1940s), and additionally to bring out the symphonic dimension of what might otherwise seem a less imposing quartet than its two predecessors.

The first movement opens with an expansive and wide-ranging melody given tonal grounding by an unchanging pedal on lower strings. This quickly rises to an effulgent statement of the theme, after which woodwind assume the foreground with their pensive dialogue then strings and muted brass usher in a brief recollection of the initial music prior to the uncertain close. The second movement, one of Shostakovich’s most affecting (and duly recognized as such by Dmitry Tsyganov, leader of the Beethoven Quartet, when he transcribed it for violin and piano in the early 1960s—a version recently recorded by Sasha Rozhdestvensky and Jeremy Menuhin on First Hand Records FHR37), centres on an eloquent melody here given to oboe over a halting accompaniment on lower strings. This gains gradually in expressive intensity on the way to a climax with keening woodwind to the fore, subsiding as horn then clarinet pick up on that initial eloquence with a continuation where the melody is heard right across the texture; the music retains its earlier poise before it arrives at a calmly expectant pause.

The third movement is one of its composer’s fugitive scherzos, its understated activity shared between strings in the middle and lower registers prior to a wistful rendering on flutes against lower woodwind and muted brass. The focus shifts back to the strings, then trumpets have an almost Mahlerian take on the theme in the company of insistent percussion. The music then returns to its initial reticence, with aspects of previous variants sounding speculatively before the bassoon gently outlines the main theme of the finale. The movement as a whole is brusquely launched by wind and percussion, strings taking up this theme in the company of mordant comments from woodwind and brass (with a discreet yet telling contribution from celesta.) Gradually tension mounts going into a rousing transformation of the theme with the whole orchestra brought into play. At length the brass sounds a halt to this activity, aspects of the theme then being shared between brass and woodwind until the music alights on a gentle discord from the latter. The dance motion fades out musingly on violins and percussion.

Richard Whitehouse

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