Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 11; String Quartet No. 14

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
WORKS: String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 11; String Quartet No. 14
PERFORMER: Hagen Quartet
These are thought-provoking performances which manage to offer a somewhat different perspective on Shostakovich’s art from that of the much-admired Borodin Quartet on EMI. In many respects, the two ensembles’ interpretations seem diametrically opposed – the Borodins generally employing a rich and full-blooded timbre throughout, in contrast to the Hagens’ more varied tonal palette and frequent recourse to playing without vibrato.


There are disagreements too on the question of tempo. In the Fourth Quartet, for example, the Hagens resist the temptation to give greater momentum to the furtive third movement, and the Finale is taken at a daringly slow pace – a gamble which just about pays off through careful gradation of the dynamic intensity.

In matters of articulation, the Hagen Quartet seems more inclined to emphasise the grotesque nature of Shostakovich’s writing. Glissandos and other percussive effects, such as the obsessively repeated major thirds in the ‘Humoreske’ movement of the Eleventh, are delivered with tremendous relish, as is the strangely pointillist writing that casts a dark shadow over the finale of the Fourteenth.


What’s perhaps missing is the sense of suffocating anguish which makes the Borodin Quartet’s readings of these works so overwhelmingly moving. Nonetheless, it’s illuminating to experience a more detached approach to the music, which succeeds better than others in placing Shostakovich’s achievement within the context of a genuinely European rather than Russian tradition of quartet writing. Erik Levi