Young string quartets playing Shostakovich seem to be a pretty commonplace occurrence these days – on the subject of which, my review of the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos playing a remarkably similar programme is appearing simultaneously.
Interestingly on the present Capriccio release, the booklet gives a biography of the quartet but contents itself with a photo of Kupiec. A shame, as by implication this seems to diminish the stature of the Piano Quintet, almost as if their 'guest' is an afterthought. Actually, the Quintet receives a competent performance, enjoyable at the time without displacing allegiance to the two recordings by the Borodin Quartet, with guests Leonskaja and Richter. The work itself is wonderful, premiered by the composer himself (with the Glazunov Quartet).
Kupiec and the Petersen Quartet give an account of the opening Lento that is fairly determined without entering into Richter-like ruggedness. As the performance continues, it becomes clear that the strings are more committed than the pianist, and it is the Quartet's maintenance of a concentrated atmosphere that really impresses. Their extended pianissimo in the Adagio Fugue is breathtaking. It is in the fugue that they project a sense of desolate space. By keeping it so hushed, the listener is forced to participate, to strain.
A shame therefore that the Scherzo is rather tame, and it is here that the recording reveals itself to be close but insubstantial as well. The sense of bleak inevitability around the Intermezzo is good, and the projection of the finale's mood as happy in a suppressed ‘undertoney’ way is enjoyable. This is confirmed by the sweetly shadowy close.
Shostakovich himself referred to his First Quartet as 'vernal', and there is a real sense of freshness about it. The Petersen Quartet emphasises this aspect, holding back warmth from the opening in favour of a more open sound. They are in no rush – this is as laid back as the ensuing grazioso. Only the finale seems a little damp.
The quartet finally find the depth of expression required in the slow movement of the Fourth Quartet (an Andantino), where controlled anguish is the order of the day, a thread that follows through into the shadowy, shifting third movement. A shame they do not keep it up as the finale again, while being fairly dynamic, needs that little bit more.
A mixed disc, then, that only intermittently cuts the Shostakovichian mustard.
MusicWeb, August 2005
Having previously encountered the Petersen Quartet on a well-played disc of string quartets by Erwin Schulhoff, I initially wondered how their lean, aggressive approach would work on Shostakovich. I can report it works quite well. In the Piano Quintet (in tandem with the equally deft pianism of Ewa Kupiec), adopting slightly faster tempos than either the justly praised Richter/Borodin account (EMI) or that of Uryash/St. Petersburg (Hyperion: see my review in Fanfare 28:4), they eschew exaggerations and longueurs - the second movement fugue begins delicately, builds to a potent peak in the middle, and withdraws with no loss of intensity; the scherzo is crisp and contains a soupçon of wit (which most ensembles miss); and they pace the finale’s various episodes well, concluding almost tongue-in-cheek in the final pages. Wiry and energetic in the two string quartets, they are neither as robust nor romantic as the Borodins (EMI), nor are their individual voices as clearly articulated (some of which may be the result of the engineer’s miking). This is only damaging in the first quartet, which occasionally comes across as edgy and rushed where the Borodins sound fleet but flowing. (Actually, in relistening to several other versions for comparison’s sake, I think the Fitzwilliam (Decca) may be my current favorite recording of this flawed piece.) But the Petersen scores highly in the fourth quartet. Their lean ensemble tone is more convincingly in keeping with the first movement’s taut, tart harmonies; they boost the drama a few notches in the third movement by emphasizing its varying dynamics, and bring out the syncopated secondary voices nicely in the closing Allegretto’s Jewish dance.
The quartet’s Website makes no mention of this release as the beginning of a cycle (whereas they will be recording all of the Beethovens), but even as a one-off it is, for the most part, a fine achievement and worthy of attention.
Fanfare Magazine, January-February 2006