Unlike many other quintets for piano and strings, the keyboard here does not take on a role of soloist. Rather, it adds its voice to the string instruments, frequently blending its sonority with that of the strings. The technical simplicity in keyboard writing reaches extreme levels of austerity in several passages, to the point where each of the pianist’s hands often plays no more than one note at a time.
In the first movement, marked Lento, following a solemn introduction, the viola expresses a typically Shostakovian melody. A short and mysterious fugato section then brings the return of solemn music. The majestic tone of this first movement, which one might hear as a prelude to the fugato movement to follow, exemplifies the deep admiration Shostakovitch had for Johann Sebastian Bach.
The second movement, Adagio, is a Spartan fugue that evokes a slow march, with its muted instruments. The musical tension rises with each of the piano’s entrances, to culminate with the return of the introductory theme from the Lento, first expressed by the piano and then by the cello.
The Scherzo in B Major provides some respite, its outward joy slightly shaded by hints of irony. Here again, the piano part almost entirely consists of two-voice writing. When the movement reaches its climax, the strings create the greater sonic density, playing two and three-note chords. This harmonic core provided by the strings serves as a backdrop against which the piano highlights a chromatic theme in octaves, set in the keyboard’s higher register.
The second to last movement, marked Intermezzo, starts with a reflective melody for the violin that exudes the utmost solitude. Halfway into the movement comes the appassionato climax, where the march unfolds with a great intensity of expression to the strings’s highest register. The end of the movement reinstates an atmosphere of calm and makes way, in a magnificent and subtle transition, for the rather pastoral Allegretto finale. With its chromatic elements and its references to themes from earlier movements, notably those from the Scherzo, this last movement concludes the quintet with typical neoclassical simplicity.
Written in 1949, Shostakovich’s Fourth Quartet was premiered only in 1953, at the death of Staline. Though lighter in character and more folk-like than his other quartets, this work has a dark colour brought forth by the very restrained use of material and the depth of feeling it expresses. The classic four movements are present but the originality and the genius lie in the subtle nuances, the sensitivity and balance of the writing. The first movement recalls a folk melody sustained by a haunting pedal throughout. A beautiful but sorrowfull melody is given to the first violin in the Andantino and the lively scherzo has a dark and mysterious character underlined by the muted instruments. The Eastern European folk music style reappears in the finale where the writing is very economical and subtle except in the central section with its very contrasting orchestral writing.
The sheer accomplishment of the writing and authentic emotion it communicates makes this quartet one of the most played and appreciated works of Shostakovich.
The 5th Quartet was written in 1952 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Beethoven Quartet. Its large scale, complex developments and orchestral conception give this work a truly symphonic dimension.
Building from elements as simple as an interval (a third), a chromatic motif, a rhythmic cell (two shorts, one long), Shostakovich develops intricate sequences and expansive melodies that convey a strong sense of cohesiveness. This technique brings great unity within the quartet, where themes intertwine and renew one another.
Performed without pause, the three movements are subtly linked together by a high F played by the first violin.
In the initial Allegro non troppo, a short introductory motif soon makes way for lush orchestral sonorities and an ever-growing dramatic climax. The unrelenting flow of themes or motives, called subjects, brings extraordinary magnitude to this movement.
In the three-part second movement, marked Andante, a first subject is given an otherworldly tone color by a unison between the viola and the first violin doubling it two octaves higher. The second violin and the cello alternately present a highly expressive theme that contrasts with the two other instruments’ distinctive unison. The middle section alludes to a melancolic theme excerpted from a trio by Galina Oustvolskia, a student of Shostakovich.
The final rondo, marked Moderato, is based on a waltz-like theme and brought to a peak with a section marked Feroce, before the return of a tender and almost naive expression of the rondo theme. This enigmatic quartet is brought to a mysteriously peaceful end with a brief reappearance of the introductory theme.
Shostakovich was born in Saint-Petersburg in 1906 and died in Moscow in 1975. His fifteen string quartets constitute one of the most importants cycles in the repertoire alongside Bartók’s six quartets.
The composition of these quartets enabled Shostakovich to distance himself from the obligations imposed upon him as designated musician for the regime, which forced him to write music for movies and formal occasions. His chamber music sheds a totally different light on the composer’s personality, sensitive yet critical and acerbic, both a witness and a victim of the cultural repression which permeated the Staline regime.
The work is structured like an arch, with five movements played without interruption. The initial Largo, itself a kind of requiem, starts by outlining the DSCH motif (D, E flat, C, B) which runs throughout the entire score. The following Allegro molto, a harshly energetic scherzo, evokes both the horrors of war and the intense frustrations experienced by Shostakovich after his opera Lady Macbeth was rejected by the Stalinist regime in 1936-37. The Allegretto that follows is a chromatic waltz bursting with sarcasm: sour-toned pizzicattos, mockerings by the second violin, hard-edged accentuations. The fourth movement, marked Largo, quotes the Dies Irae and begins with the well-known ‘eight note/eight note/quarter note’ motive, a veiled reference to the KGB spies who would infiltrate social gatherings and be singled out to others with this incisive motive. The work ends with a second Largo, an altered reprise of material from the initial movement, leaving the listener with a sense of utmost solitude, melancholy and desolation.