Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Finlandia
WORKS: String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Sibelius Academy Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-98997-2 DDD
Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets examine social issues as well as providing autobiographical testimony. No. 5 (among several works withheld by Shostakovich during the Stalinist regime) was written in the year before Stalin’s death (1953), and premiered ten months after it. The recordings by the Éder and Taneyev Quartets (the latter originates from Czech Radio broadcasts made during the mid-Seventies) differ radically in concept and execution.

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The Éder Quartet’s Naxos cycle makes great strides in this work. Tonal blending and dynamic shading are admirable, but the performance sounds warily circumspect alongside the ferocious Taneyev, which plays with volatile intensity, both here and in No. 7. Praga’s CD also includes the Beethoven Quartet’s eloquent version of No. 6. While the transfers for the Taneyev are disappointingly crude, here matters improve slightly – though this is definitive playing, for which I would tolerate sonic shortcomings.

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But I have few reservations, musical or technical, about two new Finlandia releases in the Sibelius Academy Quartet’s ongoing Shostakovich cycle. These are performances of exceptional merit; superb engineering reproduces the Sibelius’s idiomatic mastery of these scores to maximum effect. Its performance of the Third Quartet (1946) encompasses both its fabricated joviality and its bitter introspection and, despite committed playing, the Éder won’t survive scrutiny beside the Finns. The Sibelius is outstanding, too, in No. 6; gaunter, leaner, but less combative than the Beethoven Quartet had been in 1977, yet utterly gripping and, on sonic grounds alone, infinitely more rewarding. Michael Jameson