Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 1, 8 & 14; Two Pieces for String Quartet, Op 36a

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1, 8 & 14; Two Pieces for String Quartet, Op 36a
PERFORMER: Borodin Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 478 8205

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The current members of the Borodin Quartet, celebrating its 70th birthday this year, are of course not the players who forged such a close relationship with Shostakovich. Back then, though, the Borodins were not merely famous because of that association: ultimately it was their meticulous musicianship and highly honed technique and ensemble, qualities which so impressed the composer in the first place, which earned that quartet legendary status.

This is altogether a daunting legacy for their successors to fulfil. Though the present-day Borodin’s technique and coherence of ensemble is faultless, it is evident, even before one makes any comparisons or consults the composer’s score, that something is seriously lacking in these accounts of the First and Eighth Quartets. Quartet No. 1’s opening suffers from having Shostakovich’s specified dynamic contrasts – pianissimo to forte – toned down to a middle-of-the-road mezzo, while his repeated requests for ‘espress.’ are constantly ignored. The Borodins of the 1970s (recorded by Melodiya) meticulously follow these directions, and also bring out jarring countermelodies, so drawing the ear and making one eager by the movement’s end to hear what happens next. Alas, the present line-up appears quite indifferent to the idea that the music means or expresses anything at all. Even the Eighth Quartet, once described as the composer’s suicide note, is played as if being tasteful and occasionally ‘effective’ were the only qualities necessary. Quartet No. 14, mercifully, reveals some sense of quirky humour, but even in this work the Melodiya recording reveals more of its disconcerting qualities.

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Daniel Jaffé