VISSARION SHEBALIN – A Sense of Wonder – SQs 1, 2 and 3

Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin [1902-1963] wrote nine string quartets. Shebalin was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, who dedicated his second quartet to Shebalin. There is something intangible about these works. They are not profound, but some of the movements are very deep, if that makes any sense. They were written between 1923-38. A disc containing quartets Nos. 1 to 3 is still semi-available so I am going to examine them all in moderate detail.

How does one put the effect of music into words? As a general statement, I would say that Shebalin’s music does not often venture very far from its opening mood.

The first quartet, consists of three movements. The first opens with a charming flavour at a modest tempo. I am struggling to find the words here; it is just so pleasant and personable. There are plenty of major scales and is a charming piece. It only occasionally changes tempo and/or emotional feeling. It also comes across as a little orchestral; the individual voices not always being obvious. It’s more about the effect of the harmonies than the melodies, although there are attractive melodies to be found here. The second movement is very similar. It’s alluring but constant. The mood is never far from the basic theme. The third movement breaks the mould as it is taken at a much more lively tempo. The bright mood still prevails, however. This movement is a little less orchestral, being more focussed on the individual voices.

The second quartet opens in a minor mood, which is a nice change. There is a bit of a fanfare before it settles into the piece proper. The cello leads the ensemble into another orchestral section before the solo violin has a part. The ensemble resumes and the mood darkens a little but still retains a lilting quality. Slowly a lament appears, the texture drops back to nearly nothing, just a violin with occasional interjections from the quartet until it finishes. The second movement opens at a slow walking pace with the violin featured. The tempo quickens and a jaunty passage emerges before there is a recapitulation of the opening theme. The third movement opens in a strangely captivating, melancholy mood. The tension builds and then peters out for the finale. The final movement begins strongly (for Shebalin), but never overwhelms. A plaintive solo violin passage leads into a restrained rhythmic passage which leads to the conclusion.

Now on to the third quartet. The first movement features a cheery opening with some of the previously mentioned orchestral sounds. It continues the mood to the conclusion. The second, very short movement, again features a brisk tempo. This is a romp to be savoured. The third movement is in a soulful mood, which builds in intensity and then drops back to a delightful passage to take it out. Finally we have reached the end. The fourth movement is the most dynamic on the disc, but nary an angry note. It just sweeps you away.

I’m in love with this disc. I can’t put a label on it as it sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. It’s not of its time. Sometimes it is joyous and melancholy at the same time.

The CD, on the Olympia label, by the Krasni Quartet is still available but the signs are not good. Amazon is featuring those ridiculous New and Used prices and that usually means that it’s going out of print.

Several Shebalin quartets are on YouTube and String Quartet No. 5 is on Spotify. There are also many quartets on earsense.

Listenability: Simple, endearing, magical music.


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