Review of CD with compositions by SHOSTAKOVICH

Internet Edition compiled by Onno van Rijen

Updated 5 July 2004

Brilliant Classics 6429

String Quartet No. 1 in C major opus 49
String Quartet No. 2 in A major opus 68
String Quartet No. 3 in F major opus 73
String Quartet No. 4 in D major opus 83
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat opus 92
String Quartet No. 6 in G major opus 101
String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp opus 108
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor opus 110
String Quartet No. 9 in E flat opus 117
String Quartet No. 10 in A Flat Major opus 118
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor opus 122
String Quartet No. 12 in D Flat Major opus 133
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor opus 138
String Quartet No. 14 in F Sharp Major Op. 142
String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minoropus 144

Rubio Quartet
Recorded in September 2002 live at the Roman Church, Mullern, Belgium

Comparison recordings:

Rubio Quartet:
Dirk van de Velde and Dirk van den Hauwe (violin)
Marc Sonnaert (viola)
Peter Devos (cello)

Borodin Quartet I (1967):
Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov (violin)
Dmitry Shebalin (viola) Valentin Berlinsky (cello)
Chandos Historical CHAN 10064

Borodin Quartet II (1984):
Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov (violin)
Dmitri Shebalin (viola)
Valentin Berlinsky (cello)

Manhattan Quartet (1989):
Eric Lewis and Roy Lewis (violin)
John Dexter (viola)
Judith Glyde (cello)
ESS.AY Recordings CD1007/13

Fitzwilliam Quartet (1977) [ADD]:
Christopher Rowland and Jonathan Sparey (violin)
Alan George (viola)
Iaon Davis (cello)
Decca 455776

Emerson Quartet (2002):
Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (violin)
Lawrence Dutton (viola)
David Finckel (cello)
DG 463284

The works at hand are:

No.KeyOpusYear of comp.MovementsManhattanBorodin IBorodin IIFitzwilliamEmersonBrodskyRubio
1 C 49 1938 4 14.46 13.49 14.15 15.23 13.54 15.08 13.55
2 A 68 1944 4 34.38 36.08 38.01 35.44 33.06 35.01 35.42
3 F 73 1946 5 28.39 32.58 33.33 31.30 28.06 31.11 31.56
4 D 83 1949 4 25.37 25.12 25.07 25.44 24.19 25.01 25.37
5 Bb 92 1952 3 32.58 29.34 31.37 30.56 30.10 31.54 31.50
6 G 101 1956 4 24.34 24.50 24.14 26.40 22.13 22.14 25.19
7 f# 108 1960 3 12.40 11.52 12.29 12.44 11.34 13.35 13.12
8 c 110 1960 5 20.26 20.42 21.50 20.43 19.34 20.54 20.18
9 Eb 117 1964 5 25.17 28.37 26.51 27.13 24.42 25.17 26.07
10 Ab 118 1964 4 23.33 23.40 24.11 22.53 21.37 23.37 24.09
11 f 122 1966 7 16.35 16.07 15.16 16.03 16.05 17.20 16.53
12 Db 133 1968 2 26.12 28.46 27.25 27.40 24.52 27.57 27.10
13 bb 138 1970 1 19.54 18.38 19.56 19.07 19.08 20.54 20.44
14 F# 142 1973 3 26.57 - 28.15 26.30 25.04 26.58 28.03
15 eb 144 1974 6 35.25 - 36.24 34.46 35.24 37.32 35.39

A quartet named after a violin maker other than Stradivarius is taking something of a chance. Most people will assume that only Stradivarius violins "sound really good" and that other violins will have inferior sound. But as Jascha Heifetz proved in many experiments, nobody, not even the critics, could tell whether he was playing his Guarnerius or a modern copy; then, if he announced which violin he was playing, the critics would hear what they expected to hear. So, when he would announce he was playing a copy and go ahead and play the Guarnerius, the critics would complain it didn’t sound good. Or he would announce the Guarnerius and play the copy and the critics would rhapsodize over the tone. But the point is, Heifetz could tell. Sure, a Stradivarius or a Guarnerius sounds good, but mainly it is much easier to play, especially if you’re Heifetz.

So, do these string instruments by David Rubio sound good? You’ve never heard any sound any better. The players are doing all the work to guarantee that. The playing is dramatic and sensual. They particularly like to settle into a nice rich tonal chord and let it resonate among the four instruments and hold the taste of it for a second. They treat this music like Art of the Fugue, keeping a mostly solemn, unruffled mood throughout. The 1984 Borodiners on the other hand play some of the faster movements with a torchy vibrato and a trace of schmaltz and find a bouncy Russian folk tune here and there which they play with an earthy authenticity.

The point most clearly to be gained from the table of timings above is how much alike they all are. While the best recorded performances of the symphonies seem to be those which deviate the most from printed metronome markings, everyone here seems to stay pretty close to the score. Yet some of the movements are all but unrecognisable from one performance to the next, so, without deviating from tempo, great individual expression is possible. The string quartet is a most flexible and most sensitive instrument.

The 1970 Manhattan Quartet play with a particularly American sense of drama, that is relatively free of ‘baggage’ from the past. Here do not listen for Bach, or Stalinist terror, or the ancient sense of earthy Russian folk music. If the legendary Hollywood Quartet had ever recorded these works, I believe they would have sounded just like the Manhattan Quartet. Beautiful sound (digital recording certainly doesn’t hurt), balanced dramatics, broad range of emotions, more extroversion here and there than in the European versions. Their performance of the slow movement of Quartet #2 has an almost operatic sense of tragedy, whereas with the 1969 Borodiners this movement is a totally solitary and terrifying experience. With the Manhattan Quartet the peasant dance in Quartet #1 sounds more like something from the stage of Oklahoma than from a Russian village.

The earlier quartets tend to be more dramatic and more varied. The later quartets are largely serene and remote, or ironic.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet greatly pleased Shostakovich. He allowed them to premiere the final three quartets in the West and their recording was the first complete one. It has the most live acoustic of all, and I am not the only reviewer to wonder if the reverb were artificially boosted. Theirs is the most ‘romantic’ performance in the traditional sense with greater contrasts of tempo and texture than the others.

In the third movement of Quartet #2 listen for that little pizzicato figure that made such a nice touch in Alan Hovhaness’s Mt. St. Helens Symphony.

A very satisfactory version of these milestones in the quartet form.

Paul Shoemaker
Musicweb, April 2003

When it comes to this music, how the quartet plays technically is just as important as what it does interpretively, and I very much like the way that the Rubio Quartet plays. Unlike so many groups in this music, they never hack or slash their way through the more violent moments, always maintaining excellent balances, smooth legato, and a warm tone. Combine this with lively tempos throughout, and the result achieves all of the necessary intensity without ugliness or distortion, realizing the composer's intentions far more effectively than many a more rough and edgy approach. The result may well appeal to Shostakovich fans who respect rather than love these pieces (and I know that there are many), finding concentrated listening to four strings perpetually in extremis something of an ordeal (at least as compared to the symphonies, with their wider range of contrasts).

This emphasis on the classical virtues of fine chamber music playing means that those famous "crazy" moments, such as the second movement of the Eighth Quartet, erupt naturally and sound well-placed in their context with no loss of excitement, while the gentler passages in the First and Seventh Quartets, or the opening of the Fourth, are notably lovely and full of feeling. In the late quartets (Nos. 12-15) the Rubio's emphasis on lyricism goes far toward making the music's bleakness and dark emotional demeanor more palatable (and consequently more expressively direct) than many less ingratiating interpretations. Very natural recorded sound, happily not too close to the players, ideally complements the ensemble's approach. You can find more gut-wrenching versions of these works (the Borodin Quartet, for example), but this set does the music full justice while also placing it within the great quartet tradition to which Shostakovich so often pays homage. An excellent achievement and a tremendous bargain.

David Hurwitz
Classics Today

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