WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Fitzwilliam String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 455 776-2 ADD Reissue
As Decca’s minimalist booklet notes fail to mention the fact, readers may be interested to know that in these recordings – made 1975-7 – the Fitzwilliam Quartet consisted of Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Sparey, Alan George and Joan Davies. They enjoyed a personal relationship with Shostakovich, who allowed them to give the Western premieres of his last three string quartets.
Shostakovich had come to the medium relatively late, when the Soviet newspaper Pravda had already denounced his music as ‘unSoviet, unwholesome, cheap, eccentric, tuneless’. The First Quartet is not quite something one would whistle to the armaments factory, but undeniably presents a placid opening to the series, a prelapsarian sunniness communicated vividly by the Fitzwilliam through gently swaying rhythms and innocent, energetic folk melodies. The Second World War intervened before the Second Quartet, a more serious and lengthy affair distinguished in the second movement recitative by brilliant, searing playing from Rowland.
The Third is a source book of all that some find irritating in Shostakovich: a banal faux simplicity that cedes to blustery gesturing and exaggerated displays of anguish. Rowland’s intonation wavers at frenetic moments, but as an ensemble the quartet is equal to anything Shostakovich can throw at it.
The Fifth sees the quartet at its best, unified in a thrilling display of sustained energy, as does the famous Eighth, a heartfelt portrayal of catastrophe. The late quartets are purged of any wit and deftness and make for difficult listening. As the Fitzwilliam had it from Shostakovich himself, one assumes this orgy of gloom and despair was as he wanted it. As a cycle, if taken at a sitting it would have you either racing for the razor blades or laughing at the self-seriousness of it all. The Fitzwilliam is a wonderfully drilled and persuasive ensemble. The choice is yours. Christopher Wood