WORKS: String Quartets No. 1; String Quartet No. 15
PERFORMER: String Quartets Nos 1 & 15 Borodin Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-98417-2
Shostakovich’s cycle of 15 string quartets is like a set of private diaries, paralleling the public utterances of the cycle of 15 symphonies. The First was written in 1938, after the career-rescuing (perhaps even life-saving) Fifth Symphony; it is a relatively slight piece, though already full of characteristic colours and contrasts. The last dates from 1974, within a year of Shostakovich’s death; it is a chain of Adagios, with long passages of bleak emptiness interrupted by sudden wild eruptions of anger and despair.
The Borodin Quartet is uniquely qualified to play the Shostakovich quartets: formed in 1945, it still includes two players who were members of the group when it worked closely with the composer. This recording shows the Quartet’s undimmed mastery of technique and ensemble, and its supreme control of line and colour. The innocent sweetness of the First Quartet is beautifully captured, as is the desolation of the long, opening Elegy of the 15th, played without vibrato like the ghost of an ancient viol fantasia.
But perhaps more appealing to many collectors – and better value for money – is the coupling of Shostakovich’s two more extrovert chamber works, both written in wartime, combining strings with piano. Leonskaja is a match for her colleagues in the Quintet’s fine balance of tension and relaxation, and in the Trio’s combination of grief and desperation. One could quibble about a couple of minor slips which ought to have been retaken, or about a recording which makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact position of the piano. But these are magisterial performances of two of the great chamber works of the century.