Russian Early Modern composer Dmitri Shostakovich [1906-1975] wrote 15 string quartets, along with 15 symphonies — quite an achievement really. Together with Bela Bartok, they would have to be the most performed and best-selling string quartet composers of the 20th Century.
By way of background, Shostakovich had constant problems with the Russian government and battled his way through several political regimes, where he was alternately praised and disparaged, especially for his symphonies. He had a particularly tenuous and troubled relationship with Joseph Stalin.
To listen to all of the quartets is to enter the composer’s world of innovative, magnificent and daring music. I discussed Quartets Nos. 9 and 10 in October, 2016. This post will cover his First Quartet, which is a fine early effort. I am particularly fond of first string quartets, they always seem so innocent but point to the future developments in a composer’s later output. Shostakovich’s First Quartet is a charming work, almost in a Romantic style. It contains strong melodies, and no slow movements, according to the composer markings. It doesn’t quite work out this way. A bit of trivia; the composer referred to it as a ‘spring time mood.’ And so it is.
The work, which is in four movements, commences in a Romantic manner with a gentle melody at a slow tempo, which is repeated. A change introduces an ostinato and a new melody. This only lasts for a short while and a pause re-introduces the ostinato, allowing the first violin to slowly soar over this new mood, for a stunning musical moment. The violin fashions a simple melody and a key change allows it to express a wonderful descending phrase. Now the cello enters in a similar manner, fading from nothing into a powerful statement. A return to the ostinato is brief and the first violin is again splendid. This leads to a section of overlapping, ascending violin melodies, though, while brief, make for a fascinating passage. The ostinato returns and the descending violin melody is again heard leading into a wonderful section, which recalls the movement opening. Variations are heard as the dynamics drop, leaving just a solo violin to close. There is nothing modern about this movement, it’s just beautiful.
The next movement commences with a serious solo violin melody until the cello slips in behind it for a folk-like sound. A change brings about a more dense texture and eventually the power of the ensemble is heard. A sense of optimism ensues with a jaunty violin section, which becomes quite forceful. After a solo cello walk, a pizzicato complements a gentle, lilting passage which ends on a chord.
The short third movement is in complete contrast to the earlier movements. It sets up a folk-like melody and applies variations to it. Changes in harmony add interest but it seems to be over before it started.
The finale is brisk and positive, and again brief. A strong cello leads the ensemble through an exciting section. The dynamics then cut back and melodic statements are freely exchanged between the players. The previous busy passage returns, then drops back to a solo violin which suddenly moves into a very strong manner to conclude.
This is fine music, especially the first two movements, which are the emotional heart of the work. The last two movements seem a little perfunctory after the earlier emotional expression.
The First Quartet can be found on individual CDs but I suggest you opt for a complete set — the price is right.
There are many versions of the complete quartets. I can recommend two, both containing six CDs and at a budget price (at least on Amazon UK). The Fitzwilliam Quartet was the first complete version I ever owned and it was wonderful. I then came across the Brodsky Quartet’s which is a more contemporary, energised version. Lately, I have been re-examining the Fitzwilliam’s, and still finding them very enjoyable. If you buy the Brodsky’s, try to seek out the one on Teldec with a photo of the four players on the cover. There are two versions. The one without the border is a quarter of the price of the bordered version. Basically you can’t go wrong with either the Brodsky or the Fitzwilliam.
Listenability: A very satisfying first quartet.