Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10; String Quartet No. 12; String Quartet No. 14

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: String Quartet No. 10; String Quartet No. 12; String Quartet No. 14
PERFORMER: St Petersburg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67156
With the Borodin Quartet’s various Shostakovich cycles drifting in and out of the catalogue, we’re in danger of losing the best yardstick by which to measure abundant interpretations from younger groups; either of these two newcomers could so easily be overpraised without a context to stun us into common sense. There are two good historic reasons for returning to the not-quite-complete sequence recorded by the ‘first’ Borodin Quartet, and reissued here by Chandos with only a minimum of LP background noise to distract from the sense of being there with the players. First, several eye-witness accounts have made it abundantly clear that Shostakovich wanted to entrust this particular Borodin team with later quartet premieres, but remained loyal to the long-serving, fast-fading Beethoven Quartet. Second, violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, who left the Soviet Union in 1976 before he could set the seal on this cycle with recordings of the recently deceased composer’s last two quartets, sets unsurpassable standards when Shostakovich asks the first violin to carry the emotional torch; the philosophic depth of solo cadenzas such as the Second Quartet’s Recitative and the wraith-like purity of several haunting codas are worthy of David Oistrakh.

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As part of the ensemble, Dubinsky isn’t easily distinguishable from his almost equally fine successor Mikhail Kopelman. In either format, though – the later cycle was until recently available on BMG Melodiya – the team squashes all competition. If you doubt me, simply compare the Borodin’s focused fury with the inappropriately staid and elegant St Petersburg Quartet right at the start of the Tenth Quartet’s Allegretto furioso, or go straight to the cello solo clinching the nightmare of the Sixth’s finale: could anyone claim that the Debussy Quartet’s Yannick Callier is within a million miles of Valentin Berlinsky’s intensity here? Both recent contenders, offering instalments of complete cycles, seem incapable of letting loose in broad daylight the finely nuanced terror they nurture under cover of darkness; and neither has anything like the Borodin’s mastery over Shostakovich’s longest and most enigmatic finales. It was an anticlimax to leave the Chandos cycle at a harrowing Thirteenth and to face the Fourteenth in the St Petersburg Quartet’s decent but under-energised performance; but I consoled myself by hearing it again in the Borodin version on BMG Melodiya, and the dark god of Shostakovich’s awe-inspiring series was back in his own peculiar heaven again.