First Light

A personal response to Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets
Borodin Quartet Recordings Comparison

Shostakovich wrote fifteen string quartets. The last of these was the first music I properly listened to by the Russian maestro, a work of immense beauty and fragility written a year before his death. Although Shostakovich was to return to writing quartets throughout his life he actually didn’t start working with the form of music he described early on as “one of the most difficult musical genres” until he was thirty-two, long after he had written a large body of work for other instrumentation. As a youth he would listen at the walls of his home to quartets playing in the neighbours’ front room, later in life telling of how he would slip into an adjoining corridor to listen better, staying there for hours taking in the music. Perhaps then the significant role that quartet form played in his life from an early age makes it all the more interesting that he waited a relatively long time before confronting the genre himself. Certainly, string quartets were the format towards which Shostakovich repeatedly turned to produce much of his most intimate, personal music. They are where he felt safe away from the more preying eyes of the Stalinist regime that watched his symphonic works with menacing interest. They were where he seemed to approach the wider issues of the human condition rather than focus his gaze on the political or social atrocities around him. Certainly, for all the genius and magnificent craft of his symphonies it is Shostakovich’s quartets that touch me the deepest, and possibly in ways that even the mastery of Beethoven cannot manage.

So as Shostakovich did not write his first complete quartet until long after he had produced a significant body of other work it may be worth noting as I embark here on a chronological journey through his quartets that he didn’t really ever write any “early” quartets. His first explorations of the string quartet as a maturing composer were not at the same level as his much later works, and to a degree lack the sheer power of the emotional intimacy that pours from those latter pieces but the early quartets are also not the work of a novice beginner. There is a line that can be followed through the fifteen works, assorted musical quotations reappearing from one piece to another and even a tonal structure to the entire cycle that suggests Shostakovich put a lot of thought into his overall approach.

Shostakovich’s string quartets have a certain feel to them that is instantly recognisable. It is often remarked that they represent a clean break from the generally less than enthralling quartet writing of many of his Russian predecessors and yet they don’t look forward in the way Bartok’s more experimental work had challenged quartet writing just a few years earlier. If anything Shostakovich’s quartets echo the composition of the late Germanic romantics and they pick up where Beethoven left off with his late quartets. Never a bad place to start. There is a melodic, lyrical feel to Shostakovich’s quartets, but also a warmth, an intimacy and very often a deeply melancholic undercurrent that denies these pieces the opportunity of ever being just background music. They demand to be sat quietly and listened to, and, personally speaking, the impact of doing so is profound. As my life has had, and continues to have many a melancholic moment, so DSCH’s string quartets resound as heavily with me now as they ever have.

Dmitri’s youthful clandestine listening through the walls to his neighbour’s house concerts in some ways reminds me of my own experiences in my early teens as I hid a tiny transistor radio under my pillow to listen to the obscurities played by John Peel on his late night radio show. Musical discoveries made alone, perhaps with an element of danger to them, or perhaps just discoveries made in spite of the influence of parents or peers seem to hold a deeper, more important place in life. My first discoveries of Shostakovich’s string quartets were not made alone. Rather, I was introduced to DSCH by a great musical hero of mine, someone whose opinion I held (and still hold) in great stead. As my involvement with music at the time laid in other areas, this introduction weighed heavily on my mind for many years, but it never went away, and the quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich have always held a special place within me. Now though with this journal perhaps I am finally giving them the time and space I have needed to afford them.

I have a lot of recordings of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Over recent decades they have appeared at a steady rate, with the Eighth perhaps appearing more often than most. I haven’t heard all of them, or even come close to it, but a dozen or so complete cycles sit on my shelves and further individual discs of separate quartets nestle amongst them. A full survey of them all is warranted, but just too much for me to undertake as I begin this journal. So for a variety of reasons I am going to narrow my focus here to the three (and a half) cycles of the quartets recorded by the various incarnations of the Borodin Quartet over the past six decades. The Borodins were not the first quartet to perform Shostakovich’s early quartets, but they were closely associated with the composer over many years and were the first to record a full cycle, or at least, a full cycle as had been written by Shostakovich at the time. That first set of recordings, from the late sixties spans the first thirteen of the fifteen quartets and will be part of the appraisal here. The second full recorded cycle by the Borodins was recorded between 1978 and 1983, with half of the group remaining the same from the first cycle. The same incarnation of the ensemble then recorded five of the more commonly heard quartets for a 1990 release before a completely new line up recorded a full cycle in 2018. There may be other recordings of the Borodin Quartet playing Shostakovich in existence, but it will be my experiences of listening to these four releases that will form the content for this journal.

I have chosen the Borodin releases partly because the early formations of the group knew Shostakovich, but also because the various recordings span such a long period of time as the group has existed for more than six decades, and they provide a nice indication as to how interpretations of the quartets have altered down the years. Also however, my first introduction to DCSH’s string quartets was via the Borodins’ second full cycle, the cycle that remains my favoured set of recordings to date, and so it seems fitting to include them. The aim isn’t so much to compare and contrast the various incarnations of the Borodin Quartet, but rather to just provide a more interesting vehicle through which to explore my own, probably quite personal responses to the music. Thanks for reading.

The four releases I will be using are as follows:

Borodin Quartet – String Quartets 1-13 (Chandos Historical) recorded late 1960’s.

Borodin Quartet – Complete Quartets (Melodiya) recorded 1978-83

Borodin Quartet – Quartets 2,3,7,8 & 12 (Virgin) recorded 1990

Borodin Quartet – The Complete String Quartets (Decca) recorded 2017-18