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Shostakovich: String Quartets, Vol. 1 / Quartetto Noûs

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Unchanged since its formation more than a decade ago, the Quartetto Noûs has made albums for the Amadeus label and the Italian division of Warner Classics, but this is the ensemble’s first recording to receive international distribution and attention. Having studied with the Quartetto di Cremona but also quartet luminaries such as Gunter Pichler and Rainer Schmidt, they combine an Italian warmth of collective sonority with the incisive musical instincts of modern-European schools of quartet playing.

Pesenting five of Shostakovich’s best-known quartets, this volume presents the first in a projected series of the complete quartets for release on Brilliant Classics. Contemporaneous with the postwar Ninth Symphony which attracted censure for its unsettling humor, the Third Quartet of 1946 remained one of the composer’s own favorite works, and its five-movement form dives deep into dark waters before finding uneasy rest in one of Shostakovich’s most characteristically edgy finales. It was following the death of Stalin in 1953 that several of Shostakovich’s works began to feature his musical monogram, DSCH transliterated into notation, and the Fifth Quartet is one of the first such pieces. The contrapuntal working of the quartet makes it one of the most satisfying in the cycle, while the Seventh presents the composer once more as oddball clown, the Fool to the King Lear of the Eighth Quartet, where the DSCH motif finds a tragic apotheosis. The five-movement form once more serves Shostakovich well in the Ninth but signs of his refined and austere ‘late style’ begin to appear in the solemn simplicity of the slow music and the pithy exhilaration of the finale, which is almost a quartet in itself and the most Bartókian movement of the entire cycle.

REVIEW:

"Shostakovich has weathered the storms of time and modernity well and his popularity in the last few years has reached unprecedented peaks. A lot of this is on the back of his symphonic output and on his concertos which seem to speak to the current generation in a way that Mahler spoke to the Sixties generation. All of this attention has meant that Shostakovich’s later music, more often damned with faint praise in his lifetime, is now being critically reassessed. Nowhere is this more true than with the chamber music of which the jewel in the crown is, of course, the cycle of quartets...alongside those by Bartók, the most impressive composed during the twentieth century...younger quartets are embracing these superb works as part of their core repertoire...

Which brings me to the Quartetto Noûs. I will start with the latest quartet included in what is the first volume in a projected series, No. 9. I do so partly because it is a good example of the effect of the long shadow of No. 8 on the others in the series. This great masterpiece belies any notion that Shostakovich’s powers in any way diminished in the sixties and is the full equal of the more celebrated sibling which preceded it. I also start with it because this recording by the Quartetto Noûs is an exceptionally good one. I started by comparing the scherzo third movement with the reference set by the Fitzwilliams and the Italians just seem sharper, more caustic and yet also more playful. It is unfair to contrast a much older recording technically with a brand new one but the superb sound given to the Noûs really does make a difference. It is simultaneously richer and in closer focus. Listen to the way the pizzicati in the first movement skitter like raindrops. There is a lot of lyricism to this quartet, another dimension of Shostakovich’s musical personality not often heard in the symphonies, that the Noûs mine to great effect. We are reminded that this quartet was dedicated to his new wife. The first of the piece’s two slow movements really sings on this recording.

...I suspect most listeners will go to the eighth for a visceral evocation of the historical period yet the more introspective, less febrile approach taken by the Noûs has a lot to recommend it[.]

A significant feature of this new recording is a welcome insistence on finding color in this music. When I listen to these quartets I am constantly thinking that this is where the firecracker modernist of the fourth symphony went with all his bag of tricks and relentless invention. He made a brief, enigmatic reappearance in the ninth and in his last symphony but generally the Shostakovich of the symphony and concerto is a rather sober soul. The performance here of the seventh string quartet, itself a somewhat enigmatic work written after the death of the composer’s first wife, exemplifies what I liked so much about the Noûs’ manner. Even at full stretch, as in the finale, which must surely be an expression of personal not societal grief, they find a strange luminous beauty of sound in the double stopping that dominates the wild first half of the movement. They seem to be making the point that Shostakovich doesn’t have to be ugly in sound to register...This score, brief but haunting, might stand for the buried treasure awaiting discovery in the Shostakovich cycle as a whole.

...the third quartet is concerned with the human cost of war – the heartfelt return of the Schubertian theme of the slow movement that seems to quote Der Greise Kopf from Winterreise is gut wrenching in this performance before fading out into the stratosphere. The line from the Schubert song – ‘how far it is still to the grave’ – seems appropriate to the mood of the post war movements and Shostakovich’s expectations of that period.

The Noûs approach to this intriguing work might be described as consistently cantabile. Even in the spiky second movement, they play beautifully. Anyone raised on Soviet era Shostakovich might baulk at this but it is worth recalling that, in this fraught post war period, to embrace traditional abstract musical traditions like quartet writing was in itself a radical act courting accusations of formalism. Music was meant to evoke socialist realism, not concern itself with beauty of form...The Noûs play with plenty of grit as demonstrated by the third movement but there is always that sense of lamenting, singing voices behind and responding to the violence.

The fifth quartet clearly presents commentators with a challenge. The translated notes by Oreste Bossini included with this release in effect raise their hands in the face of music which is, apparently, ‘complex and inscrutable in its density and depth’. Hardly words to send the prospective listener rushing to the CD player...Yet there does seem to be an autobiographical element to even a quartet like this that seems to be resolutely absolute music. During the development section of the first movement all four instruments declaim a new melody fff. Not just any melody but a quotation from a clarinet trio by the astonishing Russian composer, Galina Ustvolskaya, to whom the composer had earlier proposed marriage only to be rejected. Knowing this fact, seems to me, to transform this movement into one concerned with ardent, turbulent feelings of desire. It is a fact that also gives me an opportunity to get on my soapbox about what a scandal it is that Ustvolskaya is still only known as a footnote to a less well known Shostakovich quartet rather than on the merits of her music. This is little short of a disgrace.

What we get is a passionate rather than a gaunt work and the Noûs Quartet’s singing style is glorious here. Have a listen to the soaring, high lying violin melody that ends this opening movement before ushering in the second. It is like an austere, ecstatic lark ascending. That second movement, one of Shostakovich’s finest, has never sounded more like an intimate, clandestine assignation...what the Quartetto Noûs give us is a Shostakovich in the round in all his multifaceted genius.

--MusicWeb International (David McDade)



Product Description:


  • Release Date: April 22, 2022


  • Catalog Number: BRI96418


  • UPC: 5028421964188


  • Label: Brilliant Classics


  • Number of Discs: 2


  • Period: 20th Century


  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Quartetto Noûs



Works:


  1. String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73

    Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

    Ensemble: Quartetto Noûs


  2. String Quartet No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 92

    Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

    Ensemble: Quartetto Noûs


  3. String Quartet No. 7 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 108

    Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

    Ensemble: Quartetto Noûs


  4. String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

    Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

    Ensemble: Quartetto Noûs


  5. String Quartet No. 9 in E-Flat Major, Op. 117

    Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

    Ensemble: Quartetto Noûs