Borodin String Quartet:
Mikhail Kopelman - Violins
Andrei Abramenkov - Violins
Dmitri Shebalin - Viola
Valentin Berlinsky - Cello
Recorded in Moscow 1984 by "Melodiya"
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In the Fifth Quartet (1951-2), Shostakovich's underlying concern with thematic unity is reflected in his linking all three movements. Much has been made of the fact that the first four notes of the motif played by the viola at the outset-it is heard five times in the first twelve bars-are a permutation of Shostakovich's musical 'signature', DSCH (D-E flat-C-B), which was to sound loud and clear in the Tenth Symphony (1953). However, it is not so much this aspect of the viola motif as the pattern of its first three notes-a rising minor 3rd on C, D and E flat-that suggests a thematic link with the Tenth Symphony: the first two movements of the quartet and the first three of the symphony are in fact initiated by such a pattern. This might be mere coincidence, but there are other ways in which the quartet anticipates the symphony, and it is worth noting that these two works bear successive opus numbers. Such connections would be of little interest if the quartet were not a major achievement in-its own right. The opening Allegro non troppo is in large-scale sonata form, complete with repeated exposition; the intensely felt, even tragic, slow movement presents a simple alternation of Andante and Andantino sections, and the more complex finale is freely constructed in a way that convincingly and memorably balances the whole. There is much finely wrought counterpoint here, influenced no doubt by the important formative experience of writing the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for piano (1950-51).
By the time of the Fifteenth Quartet (1974) and its predecessor of 1973, Shostakovich had learnt to move in this comprehensive late world of his as chromatically or as diatonically as he pleased: the twelve-note element of both these quartets is less marked than in the Thirteenth (1970). Again like its predecessor, and like so much of Shostakovich's music from the Fourteenth Symphony Op.135 onwards, the Fifteenth Quartet is felt to be haunted by death. The work leaves the impression of an extreme fining-down of the musical thought. Sometimes this makes for an austere, cryptic utterance, sometimes for an almost childlike simplicity; either way, there is something enigmatic, and the listener may feel a sense of eavesdropping, so inward and private is the tone of voice. The plan is an unbroken chain of six slow movements, all but one marked 'Adagio', the odd one out being the penultimate Funeral March, which is Adagio molto. But there is far more variety than such a description suggests.
The first movement, Elegy, with its initial fugal entries of the simplest of modal themes and its often static harmony and prevailing pianissimo-the highest dynamic marking is mp-is an expression of much gravity, purity and composure. The Serenade which follows forms a horrifying contrast, beginning with the shriek from the end of the Thirteenth Quartet; only now there are twelve such shrieks in succession, one on each of the twelve notes, and the serenade proper is crippled and pathetic. The Intermezzo erupts in protest, but the frenzied agitation of the first violin brings nothing but reminders of the Serenade, and the quietly-held E flat on the cello still persists.
The fourth movement, Nocturne, in which the instruments are muted, seems to hold some promise of escape from the all-pervasive E flat minor; but this is illusory, and in its closing bars the germ of the Funeral March is introduced. The last movement, Epilogue, poignantly reviews ideas from the remainder of the work: the frenzied demisemiquavers of the Intermezzo, the stark simplicity of the Elegy, the twanging of the Serenade, and so on. But the relationships are confused and the atmosphere is suffocating. The rhythm of the Funeral March has the final word.
from notes - HUGH OTTAWAY, 1974 and 1976