Shostakovich: The String Quartets (5 CD box set, APE)
Shostakovich: The String Quartets (5 CD box set, APE)

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer: Emerson String Quartets: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Button, David Finckel
Audio CD
SPARS Code: DDD
Number of Discs: 5 CD box set
Format: APE (image+cue)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Size: 1.33 GB
Recovery: +3%
Scan: yes

# String Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op. 49
# String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68
# String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73
# String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 83
# String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 92
# String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101
# String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
# String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
# String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117
# String Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 118
# Movements for string quartet Elegy. Adagio
# Movements for string quartet Polka. Allegretto
# String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122
# String Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133
# String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138
# String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major, Op. 142
# String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op. 144

Disc: 1
01. Moderato
02. Moderato
03. Allegro molto
04. Allegro
05. Overture
06. Recitative and Romance
07. Valse
08. Theme with Variations
09. Allegretto
10. Moderato con moto
11. Allegro non troppo
12. Adagio
13. Moderato

Disc: 2
01. Allegretto
02. Andantino
03. Allegretto
04. Allegretto
05. Allegro non troppo
06. Andante
07. Moderato – Allegretto
08. Allegretto
09. Moderato con moto
10. Lento
11. Lento – Allegretto

Also available:  Gergiev: Shostakovich - Symphony no.4 (SACD, ISO)

Disc: 3
01. Allegretto
02. Lento
03. Allegro
04. Largo
05. Allegro molto
06. Allegretto
07. Largo
08. Largo
09. Moderato con moto
10. Adagio
11. Allegretto
12. Adagio
13. Allegro
14. Andante
15. Allegretto furioso
16. Adagio
17. Allegretto

Disc: 4
01. Elegy. Adagio
02. Polka. Allegretto
03. Introduction – Andantino
04. Scherzo – Allegretto
05. Recitative – Adagio
06. Etude – Allegro
07. Humoresque – Allegro
08. Elegy – Adagio
09. Finale – Moderato
10. Moderato
11. Allegretto

Disc: 5
01. Allegretto
02. Adagio
03. Allegretto
04. No. 1, Elegy
05. No. 2, Serenade
06. No. 3, Intermezzo
07. No. 4, Nocturne
08. No. 5, Funeral March
09. No. 6, Epilogue

some of the most important string quartet music.

If you are looking to purchase a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, I cannot tell you which to buy. After much consideration, I chose the Emerson’s performance of the cycle, but your own desires might be different. Your choices should likely come down to the Borodin, Fitzwillian, and Emerson versions, and you should read lots of reviews for all of those. Those first two cover the “Russian spirit” of the music best, according to critical consensus, and since both ensembles worked with the composer, they probably have the most credibility. They also are more appealing in terms of price. Despite being often criticized as shallow, I chose the Emerson set for three reasons: I have their Bartok cycle which I think is mind-blowing (I have listened to lots of other interpretations of Bartok’s quartets, particularly the third and fourth, and the Emersons have everyone beat). Secondly, I thought I would enjoy an “external” interpretation of these quartets — fresh performances of the quartets qua music with less overt “Russianness” (nothing wrong with Russianness, mind you). Finally, the Emersons recorded this set live (the only audience noise is applause at the end of each piece), and I thought that might be more intense. Although these are the only performances of these works I have heard and I cannot compare them favorably or unfavorably to others, I think they are very good. Many critics say the Emersons often play too fast, which may be true, but i will attest to the dazzling rush are capable of giving the music. Whether or not it is “too fast” (or “too slow” for that matter) is not relevant to whether the given speed is a factor in the enjoyment one derives from the music’s composite. Personally, I think this ensemble is oozing both passion and technical gleam – can’t ask for much more than that.

A good introduction to these quartets is probably the Borodin set on Virgin, which covers quartets no. 2, 3, 7, 8, and 12. It is two discs for the price of one and it might be a good item to check out.

As to the music itself, the cycle is about 95 percent outstanding. Shostakovich adapted modern elements to his personal style, a style emotionally connected to the plight of the Russian and Jewish people under Soviet tyranny. It was also a style that earned him scorn quite a bit of scorn from the Soviet authorities. Shostakovich’s music draws from modern elements, but his music is considerably more tonal and melodic than many other twentieth-century quartets, although no.12 is particularly dissonant and atonal. It took awhile for Shostakovich to write his first string quartet — the first was written after he had already tackled five symphonies. This quartet and the next few are relatively bright, occasionally trimmed with irony or sadness or danger. But as tragedy piled up in Shostakovich’s life, his music began to reflect deep melancholy and despair. It amounts to some of the saddest, darkest music ever. Later still (starting at about no.11), the quartets become even more depressing, abstract works progressively away from conventions as Shostakovich’s health deteriorated. These are more dissonant and unsettling on the whole, with use of serial tones rows. There’re a couple of parts that I find kind of tedious, but I’m obsessive about strange things, and for all I know that might be a performance issue rather than a compositional one.

I can’t talk about the music in-depth. That would take hours and you would be better served learning about these compositions from experts. i will conclude merely by saying that Shostakovich’s quartets are some of the best music i have heard, with numerous amazing subtleties that continue to reveal themselves. I am very pleased with this set.

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