DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartets Nos. 9 & 10

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich [1906-1975] wrote fifteen string quartets. I am going to discuss Nos. 9 and 10.

String Quartet No. 9 is in five movements. It is quite long and there are no pauses between movements. Opening with a long violin melody over a sustained chord, the accompaniment grows a little more complex as the section unfolds. The texture becomes quite dense, in a measured manner, as the violin persists with the melody, while the other instruments form a rhythmic background. The first violin duets with the second, but the melody remains until it is interrupted by an ensemble flourish. This reverts back to a static background as the opening melody returns to conclude.

The next movement, an adagio, commences with a strong chordal melody. The first violin breaks out into a solo part while the background is sparse. This is a moving section which is sustained until seemingly random chords are heard. The music settles back into the introductory mood, which is pensive. The conclusion is by the solo violin which plays a motif twice.

This motif is developed at the beginning of the next movement, there being no pause. Now the motif is rhythmic which introduces a tempo. The violin breaks into a slightly chaotic passage which brings in the ensemble to set up a very musically dense situation. This concludes with a brief melodic interlude where the ensemble moves into a tempo again. The opening motif returns briefly and the violin plays with an earlier melody before ending on another motif.

Again, this motif is developed into the new, fourth movement. The violin plays some seemingly random pizzicato and then begins a new passage. After a brief violin melody, the random pizzicato returns. Now we have a solo violin in the high register. Near the end, some chordal accompaniment appears until the appearance of the now obligatory motif.

The final movement, marked allegro, begins in an extremely agitated, spirited manner. Dense melodies predominate. After a time a repeated motif emerges and the violin struts for a while. A new rhythmic pattern develops and the violin is prominent. The pattern continues at a lower volume and there is some interplay which is chaotic, gradually becoming louder and more intense. The chaos stops and we are left with the solo violin until the cello interjects with some aggressive playing. Now the cello becomes soothing and melodic. Other interjections occur. The cello instigates a new motif and all is very quiet for a time. Soon however, we have another chaotic intervention. The violin pushes on, over some aggressive cello playing. Further chaos follows and it ends with a powerful flourish.

This is a fine work, replete with alluring melodies, barren soundscapes and rhythmic and melodic variety. It is quite a complex piece.

Quartet No. 10 begins with a simple, playful violin part. The other instruments pick up the mood and build into a repeated motif. Now the cello takes over; all the while the violin is scurrying about in the background. The repeated motif reappears, with the cello providing an attractive melody. This is interrupted by a slightly abstract solo violin passage. The motif resumes and the violin concludes the movement.

The second movement opens very powerfully with the cello offering forceful thrusts. Suddenly great agitation occurs; melodies compete with rhythmic forces. This is quite confronting. The agitation continues with atonal forays everywhere. Then it just stops dead. Phew!

The third movement has a chordal introduction with a solo violin melody. The violin sounds almost disinterested as the ensemble moves into a slow, quiet passage. The violin is eerily peaceful, expectant even. Now comes the chordal melody again and as the piece is about to conclude it drops back to two violins, ever so quietly setting up the next movement as there is no pause.

The final movement begins with a solo viola. The other instruments enter over a period of time until finally we have a tempo. The violin introduces a folk-like, slightly atonal melody, punctuated by a pizzicato ensemble and then a repeated motif. This section is quite long, with small deviations throughout. The tempo remains strong and the intensity starts to rise. The interjections are more prominent and the music is louder. It is bordering on the chaotic but the motif pushes on. Eventually the composer has had enough and he offers up a brief solo violin interlude. A new chordal sound arises out of a pause and the violins extemporise on the melody. A soft ensemble passage concludes.

These two quartets are freely available and sometimes can even be found as a pairing on Amazon US and UK. Also of interest is a 2-CD set on the Cedille Records label that contains Quartets Nos. 9-12 performed by the Pacifica Quartet.

Both quartets are on Spotify as different albums. Many versions exist on YouTube and there is a fine performance of No. 9 by the Pacifica Quartet on earsense, which also has many other versions of both Nos. 9 and 10.

Listenability: What I have come to expect from Shostakovich – excellent Modern quartets.


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