Shostakovich/Schnittke/Tchaikovsky

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich/Schnittke/Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 1 in D
PERFORMER: Duke Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 14502 DDD
Quartets representing three ages of Russian music form the substance of this engrossing follow-up to the Duke Quartet’s unanimously acclaimed American disc from Collins. Its programme here is similarly provocative; the Duke’s searing, yearning, painfully confessional reading of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet is exceptional. The musicians play with the manic, black-browed belligerence of a pack of Stalinist apparatchiks, in fear of their very lives. The pungent asymmetries of this cryptic, angst-ridden score have seldom registered so forcibly. Shostakovich dedicated the work to ‘The Victims of War and Fascism’; how eloquently do the Dukes plead their cause in this chastening, lachrymose performance. Copious allusions to several of Shostakovich’s works, and valedictory references to Götterdämmerung and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique all emerge with imploring gravity, and the playing is admirably committed and polished.

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Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet No. 2, of 1980, is an equally tragic testimony to human fragility; the Dukes play with empathetic dedication, teasing out each paradoxically charged thematic strand with massive assurance. But the Tchaikovsky First Quartet, as alluring and finely crafted as any in the Romantic literature, fares less well. The Duke Quartet’s account tends too frequently toward blandness; they sound curiously inane in music that’s never red in tooth and claw. But their Shostakovich and Schnittke is outstanding, nonetheless, and the Collins sonics are first rate.Michael Jameson