String Quartets Nos 13-15
Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Linn CKD 612 85:61 mins
For the Fitzwilliam Quartet, the adventure began in 1972 when Shostakovich visited them in York around the first performances in the west of his 13th Quartet. Alan George, the only remaining member of the original group, which nominally celebrates its 50th anniversary with this release, chronicles it all eloquently in Linn’s generous presentation. He also gets to kick off with a meditative solo, since the 13th was dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet’s first viola player, Vadim Borisovsky, and Shostakovich gives him the lead (in the 14th, the cellist dominates, going expressively above the first violin at crucial points). The other players then take us into even more rarefied realms; with this group, and thanks to the dynamic and tonal range of Linn’s engineering, pianissimo has a cusp-of-silence significance.
There’s no doubt that the spirit is still embodied by the current Fitzwilliams, though I’d like a little more lightness and colour-palette in the 14th’s first movement; again, its interior monologues have all the power of Shakespearean soliloquy. Fierce pizzicatos keep the normally tranquil F sharp major close on the rack until the very end; conversely, warm vibrato makes the opening movement of the 15th Quartet more poignant and personal than the deadpan delivery, like an impersonal chant, of interpreters like the Borodin Quartet. Shostakovich’s famous comment about playing it ‘so that the flies on the ceiling drop dead of boredom’ certainly doesn’t apply here, and I think I prefer the humanity; there’s enough harrowing in the later stages of the work.