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Thread: Weekly quartet. Just a music lover perspective.

  1. #1306
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    I was a friend of the late American composer, Alan Stout, who passed away in early 2019. Alan knew and corresponded with Shostakovich. I believe they may have met at Northwestern University (where Alan taught composition) when the school awarded Shostakovich an honorary doctorate in 1973. But it may have been before that, since Alan was also friends with the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who he used to jokingly call, "My spy in the Soviet Union." I don't know when Alan met Rozhdestvensky, either, or whether the conductor was responsible for Alan meeting Shostakovich or Shostakovich was later responsible for introducing Alan to Rozhdestvensky, but Rozhdestvensky was a long time friend and champion of Shostakovich and his music. Which put Alan within the composer's circle, or at least means that at one point he had both direct and indirect access to Shostakovich's thoughts.

    Which brings me to a brief discussion that I had with Alan about Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet. It occurred in 1979. We were eating lunch together in Evanston, Illinois, and I remember telling him that I had fallen asleep the night before with my bedside radio on (an old habit of mine), and was awoken in the middle of the night by music that sounded eerily similar to Bernard Hermann's film score at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's movie Psycho--when Norman Bates, dressed as his mother, enters wielding a large knife. I couldn't get the music out of my head, & I wondered if it might have been a work by Sibelius? Alan thought for a moment, and suggested that it could have been Sibelius's tone poem, "Pohjola's Daughter." However, he then added that Hermann might have also been influenced by Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, as well. At the time I didn't know the 8th quartet, and when I told Alan that I'd try to hear it, he offered some background information to keep in mind:

    He told me that Shostakovich had composed the quartet after WW2 in direct reaction to seeing the aftermath of the destruction of the city of Dresden by allied bombers at the end of the war. He told me that Shostakovich had been in Dresden after the war (it was actually in 1960, but the city was still in ruins), and was horrified by what he saw. Of that I am certain. However, this is where my memory gets a bit less certain: I also believe that Alan told me Shostakovich had visited and known Dresden before the war--as a younger man--which of course would make the composer's reaction to its ruins all the more personal and deeply felt.

    Now, I've never bothered to do any research on the topic of whether Shostakovich knew Dresden before the war, or whether that is a known fact to his biographers. So, I can't say with absolute certainty that what I am recalling in regards to this small but important detail is correct or not. However I do believe that what I am remembering is accurate, and it does seem plausible that Shostakovich might have visited Dresden prior to WW2, considering that Dresden was one of the great musical capitals of the world at that time. Indeed, if the Soviet authorities had allowed Shostakovich to travel outside of Russia prior to the war--as they did to Prague and Warsaw, for instance--the city of Dresden would have likely been a prime place that Shostakovich was most eager to visit. Moreover, if Shostakovich had indeed traveled to Dresden during his younger years, such a trip would have allowed him to experience the city's rich musical life and cultural heritage, which was arguably unparalleled in Europe & Russia. So, I don't see it as a stretch to assume that such a visit to Dresden before the war could have been a deeply meaningful experience for Shostakovich (& especially so if he had traveled there with his 1st wife, Nina, i.e., in a more innocent time, since it has been said that Shostakovich never got over her death in November 1954. In fact, he quotes the love lament from his opera Lady Macbeth in his 8th String Quartet, an opera that was dedicated to Nina. In addition, his 7th String Quartet was likewise dedicated to her--so it seems very likely that Nina was still on Shostakovich's mind when he composed his 8th String Quartet in 1960.). Which of course would have made the experience of seeing this once great musical capital, with its former architectural riches, such as the Semperoper--the magnificent opera house & concert hall of the Staatskapelle Dresden--now in ruins, all the more devastating to the composer.

    Alan said nothing about fascism, or victims of fascism to me in regards to the quartet; although, according to the score, Shostakovich dedicated the quartet "to the victims of fascism and the war". Shostakovich's son, Maxim, interpreted this sombre dedication as referring to all victims of "totalitarianism". But for Alan, the music was directly inspired by Shostakovich's reaction to what he saw in Dresden. Which doesn't make the other ideas about the quartet implausible or wrong, indeed the catalyst may have been the bombed out Dresden, but that doesn't mean the quartet didn't or can't have other expanded meanings and universal connections, along with close ties to Shostakovich and his life. For example, in addition to the quote from his opera, Lady Macbeth, there are other direct quotations in the quartet, such as in the fourth movement, where Shostakovich quotes from the 19th century Russian song, "Zamuchen tyazholoy nevolyey", or "Tormented by Grievous Bondage" (which I've seen alternatively translated as "Exhausted by the hardships of prison"). But whatever those expanded meanings are, I see this quartet as a deeply felt and personal utterance. The emotions expressed in the music are closely autobiographical. They are something that Shostakovich felt and experienced first hand. According to the composer's friend Isaak Davidovich Glikman, Shostakovich saw the quartet as kind of self-portrait which he ironically dedicated to his own memory. On July 19th, 1960, Shostakovich wrote the following to Glikman in a letter:

    "I reflected that if I die someday then it's hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: 'Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet'."

    The Borodin Quartet's account of playing the work for Shostakovich only further attests to the deep personal emotions expressed in the music: Here is a passage written by critic Erik Smith, which is drawn from the liner notes to the Borodin's 1962 recording,

    "The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room."

    Peter J. Rabinowitz has additionally pointed out that there are "covert references" to Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen in this Quartet (in his book, "The Rhetoric of Reference; or, Shostakovich's Ghost Quartet"). Of course, Strauss worked regularly in Dresden as both a conductor and composer over the course of his long career, and many of his works, such as his greatest operas, were premiered at the old Semperoper. Indeed, early in his career Strauss formed a close working relationship with the Staatskapelle Dresden that lasted six decades. As with the quartet, Strauss's Metamorphosen has a similar direct tie to the end of the WW2, as it was composed during the final months of the war, between August 1944 and March 1945. In other words, it was created during the very same period that the Allied forces destroyed the city of Dresden in February 13-15, 1945. Interestingly, in Metamorphosen, Strauss echoes his early work, Death and Transfiguration (which, by the way, he also quotes from in his Four Last Songs, composed in 1948). However, for Strauss, the destruction that he witnessed was more likely of the city of Munich (although it could have been in relation to Dresden, as well, whose destruction he had surely heard news of). The following passage about Metamorphosen is taken from Wikipedia:

    "It has been widely believed that Strauss wrote the work as a statement of mourning for Germany's destruction during the war, in particular as an elegy for the devastating bombing of Munich, especially places such as the Munich Opera House."

    Also from Wikipedia, shortly after finishing Metamorphosen, "Strauss wrote in his diary":

    "The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom."

    In my view, Strauss's experience of Munich sheds light on how Shostakovich similarly viewed the destruction of the city of Dresden in 1960 and likewise turned it into music with more universal themes and implications in mind. Therefore, it's hardly surprising that Shostakovich set about to consciously link his 8th String Quartet to Strauss's Metamorphosen, considering that there are thematic parallels between the two works regarding their wartime subject matter. I see both works as important masterpieces of the mid-20th century, and inextricably linked.

    Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc0aSaH-SGE
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdtbIzUqkjc

    Shostakovich 8th String Quartet:
    Fitzwilliam Quartet, 1976: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLEbUREVTU8

    https://www.nytimes.com/1973/06/12/a...he-modern.html

    --The following excellent article is where I got much of my information & translations quoted above: http://www.quartets.de/compositions/ssq08.html. Of further, relevant interest, the writer points out that "at the beginning of the fourth movement, three notes are repeated against a low drone: the sound of anti aircraft flak and the menacing whine of a bomber high in the sky above." If I'm not mistaken, the sounds of bombers in the sky can also be heard in Strauss's Metamorphosen.
    Last edited by Josquin13; Sep-17-2020 at 20:42.

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  3. #1307
    Senior Member annaw's Avatar
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    Thanks for your post, Josquin! A really fascinating story.

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    Senior Member Iota's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josquin13 View Post
    According to the composer's friend Isaak Davidovich Glikman, Shostakovich saw the quartet as kind of self-portrait which he ironically dedicated to his own memory. On July 19th, 1960, Shostakovich wrote the following to Glikman in a letter:

    "I reflected that if I die someday then it's hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: 'Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet'."
    I've read it said that this letter was a strong indication that Shostakovich wrote the 8th Quartet as some kind of suicide note, as by the time he arrived in Dresden things had become almost intolerable for him, for some of the reasons you mention and others. People (including Maxim I think) were concerned that he might be feeling suicidal and responded accordingly. I can find the link where I read that if anybody interested.

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  7. #1309
    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    I think I'm Shostied out now with the final 3 recordings but all were very good solid performances from the Edinburgh, Melos and particularly the Aviv quartets. I probably liked the Aviv recording best of the 3. The Edinburgh quartet were a little light in the 2nd and 3rd movements and it didn't bounce enough in the 3rd for me but they were achingly haunting in the final two. The Melos was just a good, solid reading but the Aviv quartet were warmer in the first half and very dark and sorrowful in the second half. The last movement was a particular highlight for me. So I'm leaving it there. I'll round up my listening probably tomorrow.
    It's been a joy revisiting this one and listening to so many unfamiliar (and familiar) recordings.Big thanks to Jos for his informative post earlier.
    Last edited by Merl; Sep-17-2020 at 21:31.

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    Senior Member Malx's Avatar
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    During the week I have listened a few times to the two recordings I have in my collection of the Shostakovich 8th quartet - Borodin (second set) and the Pacifica. I also sampled the following using Qobuz - Pavel Haas, Rubio, Danel.
    My personal conclusion is that I am happy to stick with what I have got, both the Borodins and the Pacifica seem to get to the sole of the piece better than the others I checked out, the others I tried were fine but for me lack that little something that makes the difference.

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    I have listened to a huge number of Shosty 8s this week and have been impressed at the strength and high quality of most recordings. This really has been a quartet very well served on disc. To sum up my listening here's what I think. Tbh, my conclusions, for once aren't that far off Trout's list.

    I would heartiy recommend all of the recordings below and there's not that much that kept these outta the top tier. They just needed that little bit more.

    Rubio
    Chilingirian
    Altius
    Carducci
    Brodsky
    Manhattan
    Jerusalem
    Orava
    Danel
    Medici
    Byron
    Dragon
    Aris
    St Lawrence
    Talich
    Aviv
    Borodin 2

    However, there were quite a few that were just top of the shop. I could hardly put a flea's chest hair between this lot. All of these are special for different reasons and it really depends what you like / what mood you're in which of these you really rate. So here's my top ten in no particular order.

    Borodin 1 - still amazing 50 years after it was released.
    Hagen - stunning ensemble playing
    Mandelring - I knew of this one but hadn't heard it. I'm going to be getting the full cycle on the strength of this.
    Emerson - wonderful bravura account
    Alexander - great recording. Meticulously played.
    Fitzwilliam - still a killer performance and I love the sound of it.
    Sorrel - this has had mixed reviews when it came out but I don't know why. It's wonderful and many people rate this as highly as me. Further plays make it even better.
    Pacifica - wonderfully recorded, top account from my go-to cycle.
    Taneyev - this one surprised me. Very effective performance.
    Yggdrasil - another that came outta nowhere but what a fantastic surprise.

    I suppose some people will say "come on Merl, pin your colours to one mast" but I really couldn't. I love all 10 of these equally for different reasons. If you forced me at gunpoint to give a favourite I might say a different one each day. Some here are classics and deserve such status (Fitzwilliam, Borodin, Emerson) but the others are just as impressive to me (others will, no doubt, disagree). The one I return to most is the Pacifica but that was before I found some of these. I look forward to living with all of these (thanks Spotify) over the coming years.
    Last edited by Merl; Sep-18-2020 at 18:05.

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  13. #1312
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    Merl,

    Thanks for your post. I think you'll agree that we're living in a golden age for string quartet playing. Your posts over the past weeks, months, attest to this.

    I've taken over for Allegro Con Brio, temporarily. Portamento will be picking for next week. Are you still out there, Portamento? If not, Shosty is up next. I'll try to get hold of Portamento via a private message. If they don't respond, are you ready with a quartet for next Sunday, Shosty? (If not Shosty, then sbmonty?)
    Last edited by Josquin13; Sep-18-2020 at 19:02.

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    Senior Member flamencosketches's Avatar
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    Of the two I've listened to this week, Kronos and Pacifica, I definitely prefer the Pacifica. I really love their Shostakovich cycle.

    @Josquin, thanks much for sharing. Whether or not DSCH really did travel to Dresden as a young man, you can tell that seeing it in ruins deeply disturbed him. Somehow I knew nothing of the Dresden connection at all until reading your post, but listening now, I definitely hear it—and I can hear how it ties to Strauss's Metamorphosen. Thinking about the work in this light does allow some of the programmatic elements to click a little bit more (though I still do not hear those pulses as door knocks )

    A great work.

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josquin13 View Post
    Merl,

    Thanks for your post. I think you'll agree that we're living in a golden age for string quartet playing. Your posts over the past weeks, months, attest to this.
    Until I came to TC, I never considered the string quartet as interesting as symphonies. I liked and loved some of them (Ravel, Beethoven, etc) but lacked experience of many others. However, since coming here all those years ago I've read many SQ posts in the chamber section by many knowleable members (eg you-Jos, Mandryka, etc). I rarely commented much due to my lack of experience of recordings / certain composers but I've been doing my homework for the past 5 years and lurking in the chamber section and consider SQs as an essential part of my daily listening. I agree that we are definitely in a golden age of SQ recordings. We have the great ones of the past (many which have been remastered, etc) plus some seriously excellent new recordings. I'm loving this thread and it's introduced me to some great music but it is seriously costing me a lot of money. Do I care? No. I love hearing new music and enjoy saying what I like about it.
    Last edited by Merl; Sep-19-2020 at 12:32.

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    Senior Member BlackAdderLXX's Avatar
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    Hello all. It seems that returning to work has seriously upset my previous routine of hanging out on TC all day while listening to music as I had been doing during the lockdown. Consequently I seem to only be making it to this thread once or twice a week as opposed to daily. In any case, besides discovering the difference between chalk and cheese (at least in the UK), I have now discovered this wonderful quartet. Shostakovich is a composer that I have been holding off on delving into as his music (at first listen) has been a little heavy for my tastes. To date I've only listened to a small handful of his works as I want to be in the right frame of mind when I start exploring his music in earnest. I'm appreciative of the very informative post by @Josquin13 above. After reading the part about Shosty's reaction when the Borodins played for him and also Merl's commendation, I decided to play the Borodin 1 which I found on YouTube.

    I have to say, this quartet is one of the most haunting things I've heard. You can hear the pain with which he composed it. Absolutely beautiful. The knocking was so eerie. It made me think of what life must have been like for all of those who lived out their lives behind the iron curtain. Anyways, excellent choice this week. Thanks everyone.
    If I had a time machine I'd go back and warn these artists about their album covers

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    Great post, BlackAdderLXX!

    Merl,

    I've privately messaged Portamento, Shosty, & sbmonty about next weeks' SQ pick. My first week 'on the job' is turning into a disaster!, as none of the three have responded--at least, not yet. In case I don't hear back from them, you're next on the list. Could you possibly be ready with your quartet pick by tomorrow evening, as back up, so that we're covered? I know from our conversation two weeks ago that you're ready with a pick, so I'm hoping that it won't be a problem. (If one of the others then reappears and is upset that they missed their turn, they can always pick a quartet the week after you.)
    Last edited by Josquin13; Sep-19-2020 at 18:37.

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josquin13 View Post
    Great post, BlackAdderLXX!

    Merl,

    I've privately messaged Portamento, Shosty, & sbmonty about next weeks' SQ pick. My first week 'on the job' is turning into a disaster!, as none of the three have responded--at least, not yet. In case I don't hear back from them, you're next on the list. Could you possibly be ready with your quartet pick by tomorrow evening, as back up, so that we're covered? I know from our conversation two weeks ago that you're ready with a pick, so I'm hoping that it won't be a problem. (If one of the others then reappears and is upset that they missed their turn, they can always pick a quartet the week after you.)
    Course I can. I had 3 quartets I was thinking of doing but ive narrowed it down to 1. Its not a massively popular one with stacks of recordings, thankfully, and im sure you'll like it Jos. If the others pick one then ill just drop back in line. Nps.
    Last edited by Merl; Sep-19-2020 at 18:54.

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    To my regret I haven't been following this thread. I hope to jump in with the next selection, although I tend not to listen to music through the web. With luck I'll own a physical copy.

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    Stumbled across this thread today just as I was doing my first exploration of Shostakovich's Quartets, which I received in the post last week, the set of 13 by the Borodin Quartet on Chandos.

    The 8th really is a remarkable first listen. The things that stood out on first impression were:

    Certain phrases in the first movement turn from sweet sounding notes of promise descending down to introspective sorrow in a heartbeat.

    The other feature I found remarkable is the use of almost drone like sections, particularly a few cello notes held for an extended period, and most effectively a long and bedraggled sustained viola note played between unison playing of the violins and cello during the fourth movement. At least in the one recording I've heard, the viola almost sounds like it might crack.

    I was fully engaged by the whole piece, and will be listening a few more times tomorrow.

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    thejewk,

    The "almost drone like section" at the the beginning of the 4th movement is thought to intentionally mimic the whine of air bombers high above and the three knocks, anti aircraft flak. (You might find my lengthy post above interesting.) In Russia, they call the 8th quartet Shostakovich's "Dresden" Quartet, because he composed it in three days while visiting the bombed out ruins of Dresden in 1960, which effected him deeply.

    Here's the sound of modern Anti-aircraft flak, which presumably would have some similarity to what Shostakovich might have heard in Russia during WW2:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U217ClVe3D8

    For the sake of comparison, here is a link to the Borodin Quartet's 1962 recording (you can click on 10:40 to hear just the Largo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwostsHeRdw, and the Fitzwilliam Quartet playing the 4th movement, as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjz7GkbWq50.
    Last edited by Josquin13; Sep-20-2020 at 00:14.

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