Shostakovich (arr. Barshai)

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich (arr. Barshai)
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Chamber Symphonies: Op. 110a (Quartet No. 8); Op. 49a (Quartet No. 1); Op. 118a (Quartet No. 10)
PERFORMER: Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross


In their original form Shostakovich’s string quartets effortlessly and often unnervingly change character, one moment intimate and confiding, the next a furious testimony of brutality and horrors. When transcribed for a larger ensemble, their nature is inevitably transformed. This perhaps matters less for the suavely neo-classical First Quartet and the flippant ironies of the Tenth. However, the Eighth – easily the best known of Shostakovich’s Quartets – is both one of his most personal works and one of the most ferocious, paradoxically all the more telling for being scored for just four musicians. Alas, Barshai’s arrangement of this intense, lean and shocking work is prone to sounding merely lumbering and brutish, most particularly the Allegro molto (‘very fast’) section which is anything but in his scoring for full string orchestra.

The Dmitri Ensemble, for all the evident discipline and commitment of its performances – much cleaner in execution than Barshai’s own live recordings on Brilliant Classics – does little to assuage that impression. Barshai’s Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Eighth with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is more successful, creating at least an inexorable quality with its polished playing. However the COE does not include Op. 49a (Quartet No. 1), which is perhaps one of the more successful of Barshai’s arrangements, sounding in the Dmitri’s account like a distant cousin of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. The Tenth Quartet’s opening loses a deal of its intensity in its opening movement, though the Dmitri succeed in making Barshai’s scored version sound alert rather than listless.


Daniel Jaffé