Shostakovich

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Praga
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 14 & 15; Two Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 36
PERFORMER: Prazák Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PRD/DSD 250 306

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These are the kinds of performances Shostakovich used to refer to unflatteringly as ‘mezzofortist’. While the dynamic can rise powerfully above that level in the Prazak Quartet’s latest of many recordings, it rarely goes below. Which is fatal above all for the last two string quartets, where seemingly simple notes on a page need all the inward expression in the world to read as the private chronicle of different approaches to impending death. Without the sudden drop-backs to introspection, the more innocuous-seeming passages of the 14th Quartet really don’t register in context. There’s no inward pain from which to retreat into the bittersweet love-music at the heart of the Adagio, whether that makes reference to Braga’s Angel Serenade or a dash of nostalgic grief from the world of Janácek’s Intimate Letters, the language of which might have given the Prazaks a hint or two here.

Even if you don’t buy the booklet note writer’s idea that the 14th’s final sighs come from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk rather than Janácek, the immediate plunge into the Romance arranged from that opera should still strike as piquant: there’s nothing about the post-Romantic melody that the Prazaks don’t get here. And while the opening of their 15th Quartet suggests the inapt sunlight of the CD sleeve’s image rather than candles for a wake, the glories of over four decades together show powerful individual masteries in the searing later solo cadenzas. That’s something to celebrate, but it’s not enough to sell this disc against very stiff competition from younger quartets.

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David Nice