Shostakovich: Fragments Vol 1 (3CD)

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Roger Woodward, Alexander String Quartet

The Alexander String Quartet has performed in the major music capitals of four continents, securing its standing among the world’s premier ensembles. Widely admired for its interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich, the Quartet has also established itself as an important advocate of new music through over 25 commissions and numerous premiere performances. This new US label, Foghorn Classics, is the home of the Alexander String Quartet.

Captured here on three discs is the first half of the Alexander String Quartet’s complete Shostakovich cycle, superbly recorded. They provide detailed insights framing the music presented with expert observations yet with empathy and anecdotal detail that reflect the compassion and suffering imbedded in these riveting intrepid interpretations. 

The Piano Quintet with Roger Woodward is a veritable “tour de force” while the bonus “Prelude and Fugue” transcriptions are nothing less than a revelation.

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Piano Quintet in G minor, op.57
Preludes and Fugues (24), op.87: no.15 in D flat major
Preludes and Fugues (24), op.87: no.20 in C minor
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

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An expressive take on Shostakovich's most personal works.



For the second half of the 20th Century, Bartók's Six String Quartets were regarded as the high point of contemporary music in that genre, but they have been overtaken since, particularly in the number of complete recordings, by the 15 quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. These intimate works represent a kind of personal musical diary of the composer, mapping out the feelings of defiance and despair he suffered while trying to negotiate an artistic path within (but outside of) the repressive Communist regime of Soviet Russia. The first seven quartets, which appear in this first volume of a complete set, were composed between 1938 and 1960: in other words, from just after the first denunciation of the composer, through his struggles with Stalin and the 1948 purge, and on through his official rehabilitation. Despite this, the emotional terrain begins in a lighthearted vein in No. 1 (and the lyrical Piano Quartet of 1940), and then progressively becomes more ironic and darker as the quartets go on. One of the most searingly personal, No. 8, was the next to be composed. As with Shostakovich's symphonies there are sections of musical stasis within these works, with pared back textures requiring great concentration from the players.

Based in San Francisco, the Alexander Quartet is a long established ensemble, formed in 1981 and still concertising. These recordings were made in 2006, although I have not seen them before so I don't think this set is a reissue. As I say, there is a lot of competition in this repertoire. The Alexanders take an overtly expressive approach, often slower in the quiet sections and faster in the savage scherzos than other ensembles I know. Their playing is less incisive than the Emerson Quartet (on DG; the Emersons' complete recordings box set is about to become available again); less tonally polished than the Rubio Quartet (on Brilliant Classics), less elegant and tightly structured than the Pacifica Quartet (Çedille). However they bring something else, probing deeply into the soul of this great music and making a strong case for the lesser-known Quartet No. 5, which I have never heard so effectively done. The performance of the Piano Quintet, with San Francisco resident Australian pianist Roger Woodward, is similarly inward looking in its two final movements. Prokofiev said of this work that the composer did not take a single risk; the Alexanders prove otherwise.

The recording brings the instruments up close (though I thought the cello was balanced too far back from the others in Quartet No. 3), and there is little air around the sound. This worries me less than it would with thicker textured music, and enables us to truly engage with the interpretations.

The other coupling here is with two of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues (in C Minor and Dâ™­ Major), arranged for quartet by the first violinist Zakarias Grafilo. They are thoughtfully done and beautifully played, but in terms of couplings the Pacifica set wins hands down by adding quartets by Shostakovich's contemporaries: Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg and Schnittke.