The St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Quartet have drawn sustained and widespread praise for their fresh approach to Shostakovich’s quartets, their survey concluding with the sunlit No. 1 (1938), paired with the closely contemporary Second Trio (1944) and Quintet (1940). The programme works well: the Trio and Quintet are masterpieces in their own right – the com- poser’s finest chamber works outside the quartet cycle – and form the bridge be- tween the First Quartet and the cycle proper.
The Quartet has much to offer in its modest 14-minute design. The gentleness and expressive optimism – contrasting starkly with the later quartets and perhaps deriving from the composer’s pleasure at fatherhood – make an intelligent contrast to the sombre gravity of the Trio and the glorious, abstract drama of the Quintet, still to my mind Shostakovich’s finest chamber utterance.
I like the St Petersburg’s relaxed way with the Quartet, very different to the Emerson’s more driven account or indeed memories of the Borodin (nla). In the Trio, there are none of the technical shortcomings that marred the Wanderer Trio account, or the overwrought Kremer/Maisky/Argerich live 1998 account. Some may find the Scherzo’s tempo has less zip here than others (though the marking is Allegro non troppo) but there is no loss of impetus. The Quintet flows along beautifully and in both Igor Uryash is exemplary, striking the right balance between the demands of soloist (as at the start of the Trio’s Largo or Quintet’s Prelude) and chamber player. He and the St Petersburg provide a characterful if underpowered interpretation of the quintet. Hyperion’s recording is beautifully balanced and crystal clear. A very fine achievement all round.
Gramophone, November 2004
With this disc, the St. Petersburg String Quartet concludes its survey of the Shostakovich canon—and, perhaps ironically, the quartet is the least interesting music, in both score and performance, on this release. Having the (perhaps unfair) advantage of hindsight, that is, a familiarity with the 14 quartets yet to come, one tends to hear Shostakovich’s first entry in the genre—despite some unusual melodic contours and oblique intervals, and a hint of muted anguish in the second movement—as a slighter-than-expected divertissement, lacking the affecting introspection, profound melancholy, biting satire, and driving passion that distinguish the later works. It could be argued that the four compact movements are more reminiscent, in spirit and style if not language, of Haydn, say, than Beethoven. The St. Petersburgers try to sound playful where appropriate (such as the oomph they inject into the finale), but elsewhere hold something back in reserve and, as may be heard in their interpretations of the later quartets, tend to be more convincing in the composer’s dramatic moments. By way of comparison, note how much more authority first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky of the original Borodin Quartet (Chandos) imparts to his role than his counterpart Alla Aranovskaya, and how the Borodins overall find the fantasy in the music’s varied subjects.
Chronologically, the piano quintet of 1940 fits in between the first and second string quartets, but is a weightier, more ambitious composition anchored by an intense second-movement fugue that is nearly twice as long as each of the other four movements. Critical consensus seems to favor the recording by Sviatoslav Richter and the (later) Borodin Quartet (EMI), which does indeed impress with its hefty sonorities and serious demeanor. The St. Petersburg interpretation is cut from a similar cloth; the Fugue is somber, though without the full power and tonal bite of the Borodins, and while the Scherzo could be a bit more vibrant, they milk the first movement’s internal tempo shifts for all they can, and end the finale with a soothing demeanor that seems more sincere than ironic. Hyperion’s recording allows for a richer tonal quality than that afforded the Borodins, and pianist Uryash is a good match with the strings, in tone and temperament, if without Richter’s imposing presence. Reviewing this disc gave me the opportunity to revisit the Naxos recording by the Vermeer Quartet and pianist Boris Berman, which I dealt with favorably in Fanfare 26:4, and it again scored high points. Though they approach the Fugue with less gravitas, the tongue-in-cheek passages in the Scherzo (such as the piano’s silly scalar fingerwork at 47 and again just after 59) come across with greater wit than most manage, the string phrasing is full of felicitous details, and Berman consistently finds interesting nooks and crannies that elude even the mighty Richter.
On first hearing, I was slightly disappointed in the Uryash/St. Petersburg account of the String Trio No. 2, missing the richer string tone and ethnic flavor (especially the Jewish melodies that Shostakovich quotes therein) emphasized by the Kalichstein/Laredo/Robinson Trio (on a neglected, yet engaging, two-disc collection of Shostakovich’s duos and trios on Arabesque). The first violinist’s part, moreover, features some extreme writing that exposes Aranovskaya’s occasional intonation problems, and which Jaime Laredo executes flawlessly. Nevertheless, repeated exposure has made me more receptive to the St. Petersburg’s positives: a poise and concentration that never wavers, good segues between varying emotional episodes (though they remain a tad heavy-handed dealing with Shostakovich’s jokes), and a grainy quality to the strings that I now hear as edgy and apt. I suspect that this performance and that of the Piano Quintet will wear well, and I’m able to recommend them to the ever-expanding legion of Shostakovich devotees who may not have followed the St. Petersburg survey of string quartets.
Fanfare Magazine, March-April 2005