About this Recording
8.573601 - SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Chamber Symphony, Op. 73a / Symphony for Strings, Op. 118a (Kiev Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, Yablonsky)

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Chamber Symphony, Op. 73a • Symphony for Strings, Op. 118a (arr. Rudolf Barshai)


Although it has now come into its own among those seminal cycles of the twentieth century, Shostakovich’s sequence of fifteen string quartets is unusual in that almost all of its constituents have been transcribed for larger forces that range from string ensemble to full orchestra. The catalyst for this was undoubtedly Rudolf Barshai (1924–2010), who enjoyed a professional association with the composer which lasted through to the latter’s death. Barshai established himself as a violist—first as a member of the Borodin Quartet during 1945–53, then 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 present recording completes the series of transcriptions that Barshai made of the Shostakovich quartets [those of the First, Fourth and Eighth Quartets can be heard on Naxos 8.573466], in which guise they have enjoyed regular revival in the concert hall as well as in the recital room.

Shostakovich wrote his Third String Quartet between January and August 1946—its premiere being given in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet on 16th December of that year, with the first performance in Leningrad by the Glazunov Quartet the following April. Well received at this time, the piece fell foul of the ‘Zhdanov decree’ in February 1948 and further performances were banned for several years (though it was heard in private on several occasions). Barshai made the present arrangement in 1990, the resultant Symphony for Strings receiving its premiere in Rotterdam on 10th January 1991 by the New Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Lev Markiz. The work parallels the Ninth Symphony in having five movements, though the emotional range is appreciably wider and the final resolution one of numbed acceptance.

The first movement sets off with a deceptively jaunty theme on strings, whose successor on flute and oboe sounds a more plaintive tone prior to an ambivalent close. This mood is duly intensified in a development which discusses the first theme to a strenuous degree, before the latter regains a measure of poise in the reprise. Here again the second theme sounds a note of caution, before the coda brings about a conclusion of brusque decisiveness. This tenseness is pursued in the second movement, an intermezzo whose initial idea sees an acerbic interplay that is complemented by the ensuing theme with its repeated-note accompaniment. At length the earlier idea returns in a brief climax, cut short by musing woodwind as the latter theme is resumed in a mood of anxiety which persists through to the sombre close. There follows one of Shostakovich’s demonic scherzi, its angular theme emphasised by those stabbing chords which underpin it. A central section strides forward purposefully, taking in a brief interlude for woodwind before this aggression resumes on the way to an unequivocally violent close.

The fourth movement is a passacaglia, on a theme whose stern opening gesture from unison strings derives contrast from its plangent rejoinder on oboe and clarinet. The variations that follow take in sombre interplay on woodwind, imploring violins over fateful lower strings, and an impassioned climax across the strings rounded off by pensive bassoon over dirge-like cellos and basses. From here lower strings assume greater animation as the finale begins—its lilting main theme soon taken up by upper woodwind in a mood of quiet foreboding. This is complemented by a wistful theme with solo viola to the fore against darting pizzicato strings—then, following the recall of the main theme, by a drily humorous idea. This is drawn back into the main theme, which now builds gradually though remorselessly to a piercing climax with the passacaglia theme balefully to the fore. It subsides to leave cello musing uncertainly, then the humorous idea returns in a whimsical dialogue between strings and woodwind. This dies down to a motionless chord on lower strings, over which violins bid an ethereal farewell.

At one time the most often heard of Shostakovich’s quartets after the Eighth, the Tenth String Quartet was written from 9th to 20th July 1964 and is dedicated to the composer Mieczysław Weinberg. The Beethoven Quartet gave its world premiere in Moscow on 20th November of that year, with a first hearing in Leningrad the next day. The Western premiere came about through a recording by the Weller Quartet at Vienna’s Sofiensaal in June 1965, with no public hearing until 3rd April 1966 from the Alberni Quartet in London. Barshai made his arrangement soon after the premiere, the Symphony for Strings becoming a staple of concerts with his Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Its format is similar to that of the Third Quartet, save for the omission of an intermezzo, and the expressive trajectory is one of innocence lost then tentatively regained.

The first movement is among the most disarming that Shostakovich wrote, its main theme by turns quizzical and consoling as it circles around those pithy motifs heard at the outset (given this work’s dedication, there may be a private conversation underway between Shostakovich and Weinberg; something of which both composers made a feature in their later quartets, and which helps explain the increasingly withdrawn and often rarefied nature of these pieces). No less circumspect is a central episode that unfolds haltingly towards a return of the main theme, given added piquancy by some spectral gestures played on the bow of the strings, before the coda brings the tardiest of resolutions. Its poise is shattered by a second movement that, less headlong than that from the Third Quartet, is arguably the more disconcerting for its strutting aggression. All of its material is derived from the grating gestures at the outset, and these are shared (or rather hurled) between upper and lower strings in a mood of unrelieved violence that holds good through to the return of the opening bars and a conclusion of brutal decisiveness.

The third movement is the last (in a string quartet) among Shostakovich’s passacaglias—its heartfelt theme leading to variations which take in searching violins, undulating exchanges between upper and lower strings, a more fatalistic interplay, a sombre return of the theme in lower strings, then a more consoling manner which is regretfully denied by the keening final variation. Out of which the finale emerges with a loping theme that soon takes hold, leading to a ruminative passage where lower strings continue musingly against muted dissonance on violins. These twin elements then alternate with fugitive unease over the course of a lengthy crescendo that eventually climaxes in the strenuous return of the passacaglia theme on lower strings. After a gradual winding down the main theme returns, now interspersed with motifs from the first movement to bring the music full circle and so effect a conclusion of winsome repose: a quality unmistakable in both the quartet original and string orchestra transcription.

Richard Whitehouse

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