String Quartet No. 14 in F#, Op. 142
String Quartet No. 13 in Bb minor, Op. 138
String Quartet No. 15 in Eb minor, Op. 144
Borodin String Quartet
Recorded 17-10-2011, Lisbon
This performance generated a little bit of controversy, with people either stunned or irritated.
Probably the problem stems from the place of the Borodin Quartet in the history of Shostakovich's quartets. I was one of the youngsters who emerged, almost unbelieving, from a record shop with a box of LPs under my arm that had the then-complete Shostakovich quartets (the first thirteen). It was an EMI set, issued under license from Melodiya, and was ridiculously cheap.
Those recordings, in a sort of soviet-realist stereo, were challenging, unsparing and yet had a sort of wild lyricism that flashed through. They are now available again, on Chandos.
Time moves on. The Borodins changed lineup (under pretty disagreeable circumstances - a tale of bitter personal antagonism) and the resulting ensemble is quite a different one to the original lineup. The sound is very distinctive - I always think of polished wood: ebony, rosewood, oak. They make an almost unbelievably beautiful sound when they play without vibrato, and they know how and when to use it. But there are those who see their warmer, more lyrical approach as a loss of the fire in the belly that unquestionably drove their early recordings.
And so to these three quartets. My real interest was in the thirteenth. It's a work I have never been able to fathom, though this hasn't stopped me listening to it. Does it have a structure? Or is it more like picking your way through the wreckage of something that once had a structure? And, come to think of it, the same applies to the fifteenth, where time seems to have died. The feeling that something will happen slowly gives way to the realisation that this music isn't leading anywhere, isn't following any course. Nothing seems to accumulate.
I happen to think that these performances are breath-taking. There is no using that beautiful Borodin sound to lipstick the pig. Rather there is a collision between the sweetness of the sound and the emptiness of the music. And when violence breaks out (such as the banshee shrieks of the fifteenth) then the Borodins are well able to produce those slicing, jabbing sforzandos.
I walked along the canal a few nights ago, with the dog dandling from the lead, listening to number fifteen. Forty years later, I am less keen to understand what I hear, and more inclined to let it be. I am not the same person who listened all those years ago, and the world is not the same world. The political agenda is no longer relevant to the music, and Shostakovich is another dead composer, whom I miss. All of this gives us different ears.
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