Ravel & Shostakovich: String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Ravel,Shostakovich
LABELS: Sonimage
WORKS: Ravel: String Quartet: String Quartet in F; Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 5 in B flat, Op. 92
PERFORMER: Navarra Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SON 11002

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Following hard on the heels of the Navarra Quartet’s fine recording of Vasks on the Challenge Classics label, this highly promising ensemble faces a much sterner test here in this mainstream repertory.

Their performances, recorded live at the Wye Valley Festival in September 2009, prove to be somewhat disappointing, particularly let down by an unfocused recording in which the viola and cello project their melodic lines far more strongly than the violins. Inevitably such a sonic perspective wreaks havoc with the balance of ensemble.

In the Ravel the pizzicato sections of the second movement sound heavy and lumbering, and elsewhere the inner textures seem over-fussy and lacking in homogeneity. Although the performance is technically accomplished, the Navarras are not especially convincing in negotiating the sweep of a longer phrase (a strong feature for example of the outstanding 1966 recording from the Quartetto Italiano on Eloquence), and the slow movement seems static rather than atmospheric.  

Similar criticisms can be levelled at the Shostakovich. In the first tutti, for instance, the violins’ octave passages are almost obliterated by the thundering ostinatos from the viola and cello, and this disparity of balance is even more severely jeopardised at the first movement’s climax where violins introduce the almost hysterical thematic quotation from the Ustvolskaya Clarinet Trio.

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Other sections of the work are more involving, particularly the poetic contributions from the cello against the disembodied upper strings in the slow movement. But the performance as a whole doesn’t really match the fearsome competition from recent contenders, in particular the Atrium Quartet on Zigzag. Erik Levi