Quartet No. 1 in C, Op. 49 (1938); Quartet No. 2 in A, Op. 86 (1944);
Quartet No. 4 in D, Op. 83(1949)
Beethoven Quartet/Consonance 81-3005 [67:47/AAD]

Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108(1960); Quartet No. 8 in C minor,
Op. 110 (1960); Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op. 144 (1974)
Beethoven Quartet/Consonance 81-3006 [68:39/AAD]

Quartet No. 3 in E, Op. 73 (1946); Quartet No. 6 in G, Op. 101 (1956)
Beethoven Quartet/Consonance 81-3007 [55:31/AAD]

Quartet No. 12 in D flat, Op. 133 (1968); Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor,
Op. 138 (1970); Quartet No. 14 in F sharp, Op. 142 (1973)
Beethoven Quartet/Consonance 81-3008 [69:32/AAD]

Quartet No. 9 in E flat, Op. 117 (1964); Quartet No. 10 in A flat,
Op. 118 (1964); Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966)
Beethoven Quartet/Consonance 81-3009 [60:49/AAD]

Complete String Quartets (1938-1974);
*Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940);
**Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 (1925-6)
Borodin Quartet with *Sviatoslav Richter and **Prokofiev Quartet
BMG 74321 40711-2 [411:10/ADD]

The Beethoven Quartet - Dmitry Tsiganov (violin I), Vasily Shirinsky (violin II), Vadim Borisovsky (viola), and Sergei Shirinsky (cello) - premiered almost all of Shostakovich's quartets and he dedicated four of them to the ensemble's individual members (respectively: Twelve, Eleven, Thirteen, and Fourteen). The group were likewise usually the first to record the quartets for vinyl release. Made from 1956 onwards, the present Ostankino radio performances offer an almost complete record of their relationship with this cycle. (Only the Fifth Quartet is missing.)

Sadly, except for searching versions of the late quartets, these recordings must be considered mainly of historical interest. There are two major drawbacks. The first is the Beethovens' fast speeds, which often give the impression of depthlessness and sometimes disrupt the structural coherence of the music (e.g., the shifting relationships of time-signature and note-value in the finale of the Ninth Quartet). This may have been due to the influence of the composer, whose speeds often tended to the hectic; there again, it might have been a by-product of recording for radio or even merely a question of familiarity breeding impatience. When Shostakovich joined the Beethovens to record the Piano Quintet in 1955, the result was a brisk 29-minute reading. Yet the same forces in 1940 [Multisonic 31 0179-2] produced a very different version nearly eight minutes longer - similar, in fact, to the Borodins and Richter in 1984. Furthermore, the later performances in this series (from the Eleventh onwards, with new personnel) calm down considerably. Indeed, the Fifteenth (recorded in 1975) is unusually slow and deliberate.

The second drawback is recording quality, which tends to be harsh, boomy, and occasionally even simply faulty. Often Tsiganov is recorded too close for comfort and with little body to his sound, making for uncomfortable listening. The Second Quartet (taped in 1956) suffers from a particularly poor production, including a low-level background signal which spoils the closing movements. This is even worse in the Fourth Quartet, where a loud hum ruins the second movement. From the Seventh Quartet onwards, these quite obtrusive sound problems decrease.

Despite an unusually reverberant acoustic, which glaringly envelopes the climax of the finale, the Third Quartet comes off well, as do the Sixth and Seventh. Here the Beethovens' fast speeds seem less intrinsically lightweight, while certain details are special indeed, hinting at the close proximity of Shostakovich himself, watching and transmitting his feelings to the players. (E.g., the ferocious attack on the first note of the passacaglia in the Third Quartet; a witheringly intense "Recitative and Romance" in the epic Second; the characteristic pizzicato passages in the opening movement of the intimate Seventh.) The fact remains, though, that the Consonance series is of interest mainly to students of performing tradition in this repertoire.

Allowing that the Beethoven Quartet were genuinely respected by Shostakovich, they were regarded by their younger Soviet contemporaries as something of an official ensemble, and looked on slightly askance because of that. The Borodin Quartet, on the other hand, though "ideologically" at odds with each other behind the facade, were more in tune with the unofficial side of Shostakovich's art. Indeed, if Rostislav Dubinsky's autobiography (St ormy Applause: Making Music In A Workers' State, 1989) is anything to go by, the Borodins occasionally enjoyed a closer rapport with the composer.

Many feel that it is this rapport which makes the Borodins' first (incomplete) recording of the Shostakovich quartet cycle (Melodiya/HMV, 1962-67) superior to both their second recording (Melodiya/HMV, 1978-84) and their Nineties issues on Virgin Classics and Teldec. Between the first and second cycles, two founder members, Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov, departed, leaving Dmitri Shebalin (viola) and Valentin Berlinsky (cello) to recruit Mikhail Kopelman (violin I) and Andrei Abramenkov (violin II). The line-up which made the second cycle was not the one Shostakovich got drunk and joked with after concerts. This reformed group is nonetheless formidable, and its second cycle, here reissued by BMG after EMI's lease on it expired at the end of 1995, remains outstanding.

For the reissue, Hugh Ottaway's learned but imperceptive notes are replaced by an informed and penetrating commentary by Sigrid Neef, while the recordings are remastered using 20-bit digital processing. Bizarrely, this "no noise" spring-clean has added a faint hiss to the 1984 analogue Eighth Quartet. Otherwise we get a more "live" and immediate acoustic, unsmoothed by reverb, and a more full-bodied, three-dimensional sound at higher level. Those with the facility to compare, and the money to invest in the same cycle twice, will find these effects displayed most dramatically in the live recording, with Richter, of the Piano Quintet (wrongly given on the sleeve as composed in 1945) - although the way the remastered opening crescendo of the Fourth Quartet replaces the original's shrill wiriness with a truly unison timbre of real depth is even more remarkable. With a chronological layout and the addition of a superb Opus 11 by the original Borodins with the Prokofiev Quartet from 1964, this set returns to top choice in this repertoire.

Back to Reviews. Back to Shostakovichiana . Back to Contents.