Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No.7; String Quartet No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No.7; String Quartet No. 9
PERFORMER: St Petersburg String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67155
Eulogies for previous instalments in the St Petersburg Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle had led me to expect greater things here. Admittedly the Fifth Quartet, grim testament to Stalin’s mortifying final years and kept under wraps until after the leader’s death, is the cruellest of tests, and there’s an appropriately Russian ferocity and stamina to the draining outer-movement developments which the up-front recording renders almost unendurable. But the maimed songs and dances out of which these developments grow and the private world into which they retreat have nothing like the nuancing and quick-change artistry the Borodin Quartet gave them in its phenomenal 1983 recording. Although first violin Alla Aranovskaya makes expressive enough work of the violin’s muted reflectiveness towards the end of the first movement, the perilous held high note which leads us in to the rarefied tragedy of the Andante and its numb resolution in a dead-souls chant cry out for the spot-on command and the vibrato-less pallor applied by the then Borodin leader, Mikhail Kopelman. This, the most rigorous of all Shostakovich’s quartet slow movements before the Fifteenth, has an enigmatic hinterland barely sketched by the St Petersburgers.

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Subtleties in the elliptical Seventh Quartet suggest a different team of players, perhaps because the work is in their bloodstream. The Ninth again throws down the gauntlet to individual players, and the cellist simply lacks the massive authority needed to bring the ravening of the finale to a halt. These, then, are artists whose interpretations one would be happy enough to catch in concert, but hardly the touted heirs to the charismatic Borodin – whose tradition goes on undaunted, in any case, with fresh new blood. David Nice