Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11; String Quartet No. 13; String Quartet No. 15

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: String Quartet No. 11; String Quartet No. 13; String Quartet No. 15
PERFORMER: St Petersburg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67157
For the fourth in its fine Shostakovich cycle, the St Petersburg Quartet brings together the emotionally elusive 11th Quartet with the desolate 13th and the death-ridden 15th. On paper such a programme might seem far too uncongenial for those who prefer more light and shade in this composer. But in fact the St Petersburg Quartet employs the widest possible range of colour and articulation in its performances without understating the obvious structural and textual relationships that exist between each work.

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In No. 11, the St Petersburg’s use of detached staccato quavers for the main motif in the Scherzo offers a much more menacing perspective of the music than the sleeker-sounding legato of the Emerson Quartet. Admittedly the Emerson demonstrates greater sonic brilliance in the ‘Étude’, but in the ensuing ‘Humoresque’ I prefer the St Petersburg’s imaginatively dislocated cuckoo calls in the closing bars. It’s a pity that in the final two movements the St Petersburg momentarily loses the sense of flow and tension, which ultimately makes the Emerson performance here the more satisfying.

Once again in No. 13, the St Petersburg’s willingness to produce deliberately harsh sounds where necessary really pays off. But in terms of technical mastery, the Emerson is far more successful at handling the manic pizzicato transition to the Doppio movimento, and its slightly more deliberate tempo for this section brings greater clarity to the sinister triplet patterns.

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Setting aside a strangely perfunctory conclusion and a few minor lapses of intonation from the first violin at the end of the ‘Nocturne’, I found the St Petersburg’s reading of the 15th Quartet to be taut and compelling. However, the Borodin Quartet’s interpretation of the first movement remains unsurpassed, its daringly slow tempo and use of an almost disembodied-sounding non-vibrato never fails to send shivers down my spine. Erik Levi