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Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Borodin Quartet – Season 67

June 22, 2016

May 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 2015 at 8:00 pm
At the Vancouver Playhouse

Ruben Aharonian, violin

Sergei Lomovsky, violin

Igor Naidin, viola

Vladimir Balshin, cello

The Borodin Quartet, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2015, commands special respect in the chamber music world. It has preserved a unique performance tradition, focusing on the masterpieces at the very heart of the quartet repertoire. Its interpretations are celebrated for their intensity and focus, a style in which individualism dedicates itself to the collaborative spirit of chamber music and total service of the composer’s wishes.

The Borodin Quartet’s particular affinity with Russian repertoire was stimulated by a close relationship with Shostakovich, who personally supervised its study of each of his quartets. Widely regarded as definitive interpretations, the Quartet’s cycles of the complete Shostakovich quartets have been performed all over the world. The first given in North America was in 1969 for the Friends of Chamber Music in Vancouver. We are thrilled to present the cycle this year, not only marking the Borodin Quartet’s 70th anniversary, but also the 51st anniversary of the quartet’s first performance for Friends of Chamber Music in Vancouver.

The Quartet was formed in 1945 by four students from the Moscow Conservatory. Ten years later, it changed its name from the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet to the Borodin Quartet. The group played first for Friends of Chamber Music in Vancouver in 1964, and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 was on the program. The four musicians returned to Vancouver in 1969 to play the first North American Shostakovich quartet cycle for the Friends of Chamber Music. At that time, the cycle included 12 quartets (the twelfth added at the last minute) because the composer had not yet written the last three.

The 2015 personnel of the Quartet are Ruben Aharonian, Sergei Lomovsky, Igor Naidin and Vladimir Balshin.  Ruben Aharonian and Igor Naidin joined in 1996. Cellist Vladimir Balshin joined the Quartet in August 2007 following the retirement of Valentin Berlinsky. “Valya” Berlinsky, the last of the original members, enjoyed an outstanding international career spanning over sixty years. The Borodin Quartet was his mission throughout his life and his passion was to pass on its legacy to ensure its future. Sergei Lomovsky is the most recent musician to join the quartet.

Throughout 2015, the Borodin Quartet celebrates its landmark anniversary performing all over the world, with dates in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Istanbul, Montreal, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Warsaw, London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Miami and Philadelphia, Berlin, Zurich and Vienna and performances at international festivals including Schleswig- Holstein, Rheingau, Tokyo Spring, the Snape Proms , Istanbul Music and the Dvořák Prague Festivals. Programmes include the quartets of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Myaskovsky, Shostakovich – and, of course, Borodin. In addition to performing quartets, the members of the Borodin Quartet frequently join forces with other distinguished musicians to further explore the chamber music repertoire. This year the Quartet will play quintets with partners including Boris Berezovsky, Alexei Volodin, Michael Collins, Elisabeth Leonskaja and Ludmila Berlinskaya. The Quartet also regularly gives masterclasses.

This year, to mark the 70th anniversary, the Borodin Quartet is recording the Shostakovich quartet cycle for Decca. The Quartet recorded the Beethoven cycle of quartets for Chandos ten years ago. The Quartet’s first release on Onyx, featuring music by Borodin, Schubert, Webern and Rachmaninov, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005. The Borodin Quartet has produced a rich heritage of recordings over several decades for labels including EMI, Chandos, Virgin Classics, RCA and Teldec. Among its Teldec recordings, those of Tchaikovsky’s quartets and Souvenir de Florence, Schubert’s String Quintet, Haydn’s Seven Last Words and a disc of Russian Miniatures all received acclaim. The Tchaikovsky disc was honoured with a Gramophone Award in 1994.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich lived during a dark time in Russian history. The ideology of the Soviets restricted intellectual freedom, and Shostakovich, who was purged twice under Stalin, kept a packed suitcase by his door in fear of being picked up by the KGB.

He began composing at the age of fourteen, studying at the Leningrad Conservatory where his teachers included Glazunov and Steinberg. His first symphony, composed at age 19 as a graduation piece, brought him international acclaim. Subsequent works made him the Soviet Union’s leading composer. His cycle of fifteen string quartets is seen by many as one of his crowning achievements. Curiously, he did not show much interest in writing for string quartet during the early years of his career. It was only after his fifth symphony, marking his first ‘rehabilitation’, that he wrote his first string quartet (Opus 49), in 1936. It was not until seven years later that he wrote a second. After this slow start, the quartet grew in importance in his musical output. The string quartet became the vehicle for expressing his private thoughts, just as it had been for Beethoven. It is to Beethoven’s quartets, both spiritually and technically, that these works pay homage, and like Beethoven, Shostakovich allows his choice of musical material to determine the overall shape of the piece.

In Russia, Shostakovich survived by composing some music that satisfied the Communist Party’s idea of aesthetics. At the same time, he found ways to express his own distinctive voice in other music, most notably his 15 string quartets. Some of these works could not be played safely in public for decades. Shostakovich’s quartets contain a wide range of his more private emotions and display his enormous technical ability. Although rooted in nationalism and tonality, he also used dissonance, occasionally atonality, and even tone rows as expressive means. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of Shostakovich’s work is its human appeal. He has been described as an eclectic progressive, rooted in traditional tonality, yet using dissonance, chromaticism and occasional atonality as expressive means without adhering to any particular school. Writing under the Soviet system, he was surrounded by many skilled concert artists, so that he was assured of excellent performances of his works in accordance with his own ideas.

In later life, Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill health, but he resisted giving up cigarettes and vodka. Beginning in 1958 he suffered from a debilitating condition that particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing; in 1965 it was diagnosed as polio. He also suffered heart attacks in 1966 and again in 1971, and several falls in which he broke both his legs; in 1967 he wrote in a letter:

Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective). All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order

Since Shostakovich’s death, his quartets have become increasingly appreciated worldwide. Many consider Shostakovich’s cycle of quartets to be on a par with the quartet cycles of Beethoven and Bartok.

In this special series of five concerts you can hear Shostakovich’s entire lifetime of anger, sadness, pain, irony, and sardonic humour, which still speaks to the tragic confusion of our present-day world.

Shostakovich represented himself in some works with the DSCH motif, consisting of D-E♭-C-B

Concert 1:  Tuesday May 5 at 8.00 pm

String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Opus 68

Overture: Moderato con moto

Recitative and Romance: Adagio

Waltz: Allegro

Theme and Variations: Adagio-Moderato con moto

Shostakovich wrote his First Quartet in 1938. Whereas that work is witty and relaxed, the Second Quartet, which followed in 1944, is an altogether bigger piece, dogged and intense. The extensive opening movement, headed “Overture”, is constructed from terse motivic ideas with the composer obviously enjoying the possibilities of motivic interaction and combination. Closely composed, it demands close listening, and such is its staying power that not until the very end is the principal subject formally recapitulated.

The second movement, a heartfelt romance, is framed by lengthy declamatory passages (molto espressivo) marked “Recitative” in a formal experiment which Shostakovich never repeated. The scherzo is a “diabolical” waltz, haunted, as if from a distance, by the “dance of death” imagery found in so many of his wartime and post-war compositions. Here the instruments are muted throughout, but the dynamics rise to ff and the climax is strenuous.

The finale is a continuous set of variations in A minor, introduced by a short Adagio derived from the theme, which is then stated (Moderato con moto) by each instrument in turn, beginning with the viola. The variations are both imaginative and instrumentally brilliant, with an emphasis on reiterated figures and progressive quickening of the tempo. In the final section there is a return to the Adagio introduction, and the movement ends with a broad declamatory version of the beginning of the theme.

String Quartet No. 1 in C major, Opus 49                        


        Moderato (Variations)

        Allegro molto


This quartet began as “an exercise in quartet writing”. Originally, Shostakovich did not plan to complete the work, but the piece “took hold” of him and he quickly finished it during the summer of 1938. He regarded the quartet as a “light, pleasant, springtime piece” and the music reveals him in one of his happiest moods. The Glazunov Quartet presented the premiere in Leningrad on October 10th, 1938.

The brief opening Moderato begins with a tranquil melody in C major that suddenly drops to F major introducing a surprising harmonic twist. The second melody exhibits the composer’s love for widely contrasting registers as the theme, played by the first violin, is set high over a swinging rhythmic figure from the cello playing glissando. A short development follows and then the two main subjects are restated in altered form.

Although the second movement, also Moderato, is in the same tempo, it is quite different from the first. With its nostalgic melody, clearly of Russian parentage, which is played by the viola, it touches on deeper feelings. Several variations on the theme follow. Some of the variations are quiet and pensive while others are warm and fervent.

The contrasting Allegro molto is a high-speed whispered scherzo which races along full of high spirits. A rapidly repeated note is heard almost continuously throughout the movement. A catchy little tune provides a contrast before a final recollection of the opening.

The exhilarating final Allegro is full of good spirits. The first violin occasionally appears high above the other instruments like a tightrope dancer. Buoyant good humour runs throughout the entire movement with an irresistibly infectious merriment.


Quartet No. 3 in F major, Opus 73  


        Moderato con moto

        Allegro non troppo


        Moderato meno mosso – Adagio

Shostakovich’s Third Quartet, written in 1946, is considered one of the finest of his quartet cycle. It is remarkable for the expressive range of its idiom, for its determined quest for new means of expression, and masterly scoring. It is built on the principle of dramatic contrast.

The opening Allegretto, a bright movement written in sonata form, contrasts with the three subsequent movements and the gentle lilting finale, which are predominantly contemplative. Shostakovich’s transmitting of a sense of suffering, so striking here, has at times an almost Mozartian poignancy and grace. Mozartian, too, is his feeling for the pathos of the major mode, and this is especially true of the finale, which fades wistfully.

The main theme of the first movement, a polka-like melody played by the first violin, is followed by a subdued second subject characterized by pauses. In the development the two themes are brilliantly interwoven in a double fugue. In the recapitulation the tempo increases and the movement ends with the cello and first violin playing the main theme fortissimo.

The opening bars of the Moderato con moto are heavy and troubled. As the theme progresses it changes to become lyrical and gentle. The second theme is played staccato by all four instruments, after which the main and subordinate themes appear alternately. The music gradually becomes quieter and ends on an elegiac note.

The third movement, which begins with jarring violent chords, is a march cum scherzo. Grotesque and hard driven with rapid alternations of 2/4 and 3/4 rhythm, it is a type of movement new to the quartets, but one that recurs with increasing frequency, especially in the quartets Nos. 8 and 10.

The Adagio, considered by many critics to be the outstanding movement of the quartet, is a finely textured quasi passacaglia of great expressive power. The contrasting nature of the theme is expressed in six variations, in the last of which the viola plays the main melody, accompanied by the cello. The cello continues on to the next movement without interruption.

The finale, which commences Moderato meno mosso, is a rondo sonata form. At its climax, the passacaglia theme is recalled fff espressivo. The development is short. A recitative by the first violin ends the work with a deep lingering feeling of lamentation.

Concert 2:  Thursday May 7 at 8.00 pm

String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Opus 83                                    





Shostakovich’s Fourth Quartet, which has been one of the most frequently performed quartets in Russia, is the work of a man who has made the medium his own. It was written in 1949, a year after being again denounced with other artists for “formalism”. The quartet contains neither the tragic passion nor the powerful satirical wit that were dominant traits in Shostakovich’s music. Rather, it is lyrical and transparent, written with a light hand, economical in its material, sensitive in texture, and full of subtle nuances.

The opening Allegretto, like an overture, sets the mood for the contemplative Andantino that follows. The principal material of the Allegretto is like the bagpipe music of an eastern culture, but only as Shostakovich could have created it. There is perfect timing in the way this passage yields to a warm espressivo, which serves to modify and subdue the bagpipe music when it returns.

The Andantino, in F minor, is one of the most heartwarming of all Shostakovich’s slow movements. Ardent and lyrical, it gives prominence to the first violin.

Although the last two Allegretto movements are attached, there is little in the quartet to suggest cyclical design. The first, scored in C minor, has a classical design recalling the style of Haydn. It opens with a brilliant scherzo played with muted instruments, which is followed by a folk theme, strummed pizzicato by the violins and cello, while the viola sings a melody of oriental charm. The final ensuing Allegretto is a very individual movement in which eastern folk music once more can be heard.  The movement is sparsely textured and has a climax of orchestral character. It is based on a number of reiterated ideas that are combined in a variety of ways in the manner of a controlled improvisation resembling a heavy-footed folk dance. Finally, the quartet returns to its basic lyrical mood and ends quietly.

String Quartet No 5 in B flat major, Opus 92      

        Allegro non troppo



The Fifth Quartet was composed in 1952, at the time Shostakovich also composed his Preludes and Fugues for piano and his 10th Symphony. Shostakovich felt both the quartet and the symphony works were too provocative, and withheld them until after Stalin’s death in 1953. He also withheld his Four Pushkin Monologues of 1952 until Stalin had died.

The Fifth Quartet is an introspective work fashioned in three large movements played without pause. The opening of the work contains Shostakovich’s musical signature DSCH (D, E Flat, C, and B, in German nomenclature). The SCH is the equivalent of a single letter of the Russian alphabet. This musical signature appears in many of his works, most prominently in his Eighth Quartet and the Tenth Symphony. The work embraces a wide emotional range, from anger, irony and passion, to lyricism and contemplative solitude.

The first movement follows the outlines of a sonata form, created by the dramatic interaction of the two thematic groups. The first of the two themes is characterized by chromaticism and the second by its waltz-like elements. The thematic material is developed with great intensity. The highest note of the first movement is an A flat more than four octaves above middle C. One need not be an analyst to find this important, because at this point Shostakovich writes A flats for all four instruments, in four octaves, and marks them fff espressivo.

The second movement, a bittersweet Andante, is also peopled with melodies. One of them is a quote from the Piano Trio by Galina Ustvolskaya, a student of Shostakovich with whom, in Rostropovich’s words, he had a ‘tender relationship.’ The finale of the Quartet, similarly to that of the Tenth Symphony, begins with an introspective passage that leads to the main body of the rondo. Here, the interplay of the contrasting themes builds to a climax, which, during its denouement, “seems to bear the weight of all that has gone before, finally dissolving into a state that is resolution, repose or death.”


String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Opus 101          


        Moderato con moto



Shostakovich’s Sixth String Quartet, composed in 1956, is one of his happiest works. While there are troubled feelings in the background, the overall impression is one of composure and immaculate workmanship. The music is mostly lyrical and relaxed. The lucidity, precision and overall balance is exemplary – every note counts and every rest tells. One way Shostakovich achieves this is by building the music from small fragments that he develops into important statements, such as the little repeated-note accompaniment figure that begins the piece, or the three-note rising pattern that begins the first tune. In this quartet we hear simple ostinati, drones, dance figures, and long lyrical catchy tunes but, however light the touch, the quartet manifests an ever-increasing strain of darkness.

The work begins simply and sweetly. The first theme of the opening Allegretto has a principal role in the central theme for the entire piece, so that the contrasts between the various movements are not as sharp as in the preceding quartets. Also, at the end of each movement the cello has the same striking cadential phrase which has a polytonal component in which the upper three voices play the main chord, but only the cello moves temporarily a half-step to a minor key before entering the main chord.

The slow movement is passacaglia, and its theme is reintroduced in the climax in the Finale, when it is played in canon by the cello and viola.

The last movement is a rondo, that weaves together thematic elements from the previous movements, a technique often used by Shostakovich in his quartets. The first theme of this movement seems to echo bits of all the work’s themes, but although it keeps hinting at the opening, the initial child-like theme never returns.

Concert 3: Saturday May 9 at 8.00 pm

String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Opus 108                       



        Allegro – Allegretto

Shostakovich composed this, the briefest of his quartets, in 1960 and dedicated it to the memory of his first wife, Nina, who died in 1954. The three movements are played without pause, thus accentuating the arc-like structure. It is stunning in its simplicity of texture, compactness of musical material and logical layout.

Shostakovich’s economical scoring is most obvious in the slow movement which is almost entirely written in two or three voices. The pale-coloured accompaniment is eventually reduced to a four-note motif. This suddenly turns into the subject of an impetuous fugue. After the fugue’s abrupt ending, a strange waltz-like melody follows, which is reminiscent of the first theme heard at the very opening. After all this sophisticated refinement, the gentle ending is of disarming modesty.

String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Opus 110         


Allegro molto




The Eighth String Quartet, which has been described as Shostakovich’s War Requiem, is unique among his quartets in its pronounced programmatic and autobiographic content. Composed in three days during a visit to Dresden in 1960, it was inscribed to the memory of the victims of war and fascism. The quartet portrays the brutality and destruction of war, particularly in the wild and relentless second movement. It is also a particularly private composition. Just prior to writing the quartet, Shostakovich had become aware that the heart ailment that afflicted him was incurable. The entire quartet is based on a four-note motto, DSCH, the German letters for the notes D, E flat, C and B, derived from the composer’s own name. In Shostakovich’s own words “We are for that ideal simplicity which has been characteristic of all true artists.” We are told that when Shostakovich first heard the quartet played by the Borodin Quartet privately in his own home, he was so moved that he buried his head and wept. The public premiere was given in Leningrad (St Petersburg) on October 2, 1960 by the Beethoven Quartet.

The Quartet has a cyclical structure, written in five linked movements that are played without a break. Among its unusual features is the choice of slow tempi for three of the movements. At the onset of the opening, gentle, sorrowful Largo, the cello intones the mournful DSCH motto. The other instruments immediately imitate it. Further themes borrowed from his First and Fifth symphonies follow, but the DSCH motto dominates throughout.

The Allegro opens with a torrent of fast clamorous notes that are interrupted briefly by the viola and cello with a forceful unison statement based on the DSCH motto. A quotation of a melody from his second piano trio, here like a chilling shriek, produces a change in the texture after which the movement presses on, only once falling below a fortissimo until it ends abruptly.

The Allegretto in G minor, a bitter and grotesque dance macabre, is a transformation of the DSCH motto with snatches of a waltz melody from his First Cello Concerto.  In the bar that links this movement to the following Largo, the first violin quietly intones the Dies Irae, the last note of which is sustained to simulate the drone of bomber aircraft.

The second Largo in C sharp minor, not only recalls the bombing, but includes an allusion to his First Symphony and to a melody from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – the hauntingly beautiful cello solo in which she addresses her beloved. A loud insistent three-note rapping sound, that is thought to represent fate knocking at the door, is heard throughout the movement.

The final Largo, a reminder of the first, is a slow fugue based on the DSCH motto. It is a deeply expressive epitaph for all who fell in the fight against the Nazis.


String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Opus 117               

        Moderato con moto





Shostakovich’s Ninth String Quartet, completed in 1964, was preceded by the Twelfth and Thirteenth Symphonies. In these works, Shostakovich was concerned with thematic integration using an underlying basic idea as a means to provide unity. Thus, the five linked movements of the Ninth Quartet were conceived as a single process. The underlying thematic material that links the movements is established at the start of the work in the accompanying second violin part which can be heard playing a series of oscillating seconds and then little upward and downward extensions of seconds.  The idea of an extended second forms the main impulse of the second movement. At the end of this movement the rhythm is redefined to spark off the succeeding Allegretto. Similarly, the fourth movement (Adagio) is based on the same underlying thematic motifs. These rhythmic elements are tersely contracted to propel the final Allegro. The final Allegro is by far the longest movement. The main thematic material is evolved in the fourth movement and there are many references to what has been heard in the earlier sections.

The work’s emotional character is more varied than this description of its lifeline suggests. The opening has an air of bemused composure, its chromatic tensions being offset by the tranquil motion and stable tonality that are a familiar vein in Shostakovich’s later music. The further the work proceeds, the deeper the sense of suppressed tension which at last finds release in the hard-driven finale.

Concert 4: Monday May 11 at 8.00 pm

Quartet No. 10 in A flat major, Opus 118


Allegretto furioso



In the Tenth Quartet (1964), Shostakovich set aside the deliberate through-thematicism of nos. 7-9 to resume the traditional four-movement plan. Only the last two movements are linked, and a satisfying balance of horizontal and vertical interest is reasserted. At the same time there is much vividness and directness in the musical imagery, and sheer ferocity about the second movement (Allegretto furioso). The overall effect is one of emotional richness and variety, with the extremes of tension and repose – repose is decidedly relative – held in a just equilibrium that can only be described as Classical. Key structure is important here, and in this respect the work is through-composed, for a basic opposition of A flat major and E minor operates throughout. This can be heard in the opening bars, where the first violin begins unaccompanied on an A flat and then spells out an E minor triad.

The first movement (Andante) is in A flat. In a recurring, refrain-like idea first heard as soon as the lower instruments enter, A flat emerges as a region of warmth and stability. However, contrary elements are always close at hand; the initial statement by the first violin does in fact touch all twelve notes.

In the Scherzo (Allegretto furioso), E minor is fiercely, doggedly insistent, and the succeeding slow movement may be said to revolve around that key, though the tonic key is really A minor.

The Adagio is among the finest of Shostakovich’s slow movements and is perhaps his greatest passacaglia, excepting the one in the First Violin Concerto. The nine-bar theme, played by the cello, is a wonderfully sensitive invention. Its treatment is full of subtle nuances, yet its impact is direct and immediate. There are eight rotations of the theme, of which the seventh and eighth begin in the tonic major. The coda modulates to A flat major and in this key leads into the finale.

In the finale, the new theme suggests a rondo, and the sequence of events is indeed rondo-like, but with the theme and key of the passacaglia returning passionately at the climax similar to the Third and Sixth Quartets. Also, the rondo theme twists naturally back into the first-movement “refrain” towards the close. Again, as in his Third Quartet, the “pathos of the major mode” is much in evidence.

Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122  
Introduction: Andantino

Scherzo: Allegretto

Recitative: Adagio

Etude: Allegro

Humoresque: Allegro

Elegy: Adagio

Finale: Moderato

On August 16, 1965, nine months after the double première of the Ninth and Tenth Quartets, the Beethoven Quartet lost its second violinist, Vasily Shirinsky. The other three members thought of disbanding but Shostakovich persuaded them otherwise, and began writing a quartet in memory of Shirinsky. Shostakovich finished the score on January 30, 1966, and, as several times before, the first performance took place quite swiftly afterwards: in Moscow on March 25.

The Eleventh Quartet opened Shostakovich’s final decade, in which he seems to have been preoccupied with thoughts of death, as demonstrated in his Fourteenth Symphony, a song cycle on this topic, and in his last five quartets. Many aspects of the Eleventh Quartet contribute to an atmosphere of remembrance, regret, and ultimately repose. These emotions are continued in the quartets to come: sparse scoring, with long stretches maintained by only one or two of the players; gestures suggesting memorial chant or funeral march, or falling tears; unusually dissonant chords, and correspondingly weakened tonalities; broken phrases; passages close to inactivity. These have all been met before in Shostakovich’s quartets – the bare textures in Nos. 9 and 10, for instance, and lament in almost all – but now they come forward to crowd out what might be more affirmative.

However, while standing at the gateway to Shostakovich’s late period, the Eleventh Quartet is a work all by itself, by virtue not so much of the number of its movements – seven, where no other Shostakovich quartet has more than five – as of the extreme concision of the first five, which are all done in under ten minutes, not much more than the time taken by the remaining two. Titles indicate the movements’ characters and functions, but, in their speed of succession and in how they are run together with no breaks, they flow as scenes in a single narrative. Equally important are their motivic connections, centered on the nucleus of a major second plus a minor one (D–E–F, as it might be). The idea is common in Shostakovich, but its particular prominence here brings coherence to a jagged course of events.

This germinal motif appears in the erratic violin line that initiates the quartet, unaccompanied for nine measures, but is brought much more to the forefront when the cello enters, as if chanting. Lyrical phrases from the first violin are answered by more chanting, until the leader picks up on the chant’s repeated notes and, accelerating, moves into the Scherzo.  The basic motif is everywhere in the reiterative theme that emerges, as this Scherzo gets ideas about being a fugue. Upward glissandos in the accompaniment keep adding a sardonic grimace, before the music falls apart to leave just the viola on its lowest note.

The very short Recitative arrives at another version of the basic motif as chant, and that motif is scribbled out again and again in the spinning étude, besides stamping the chorale that proceeds along with this movement’s unstoppable solo line, at one-eighth speed. In the humoresque that follows, the second violin’s omnipresent vacillation persists against the strongly accented material thrown at it, this again based on the central motif, but eventually the wavering stumbles, giving cause for the Elegy. A funeral march, in which the motif is everywhere, ends with the first violin handing over to the second, which ends the movement alone.

Once again in a Shostakovich quartet, the Finale is considerably the longest movement, and once again it resumes ideas that have already been heard. Notable among these are reminiscences of the Scherzo and of the chant-like passages that, always drawing on the quartet’s fundamental motif, were found in all three of the slower movements. At the end, the first violin takes itself to a super-high C and stays there, lifting off above its three companions, who are left as if praying for it. In the Humoresque and the Elegy, Shostakovich had alluded to his dedicatee in bringing the normally retiring second violin into relief, but it is hard not to feel that it is also Shirinsky’s violin, taking flight at the close.


Quartet No. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133

Moderato – Allegretto – Moderato – Allegretto – Moderato

Allegretto – Adagio – Moderato – Allegretto

Only two years separate the Twelfth Quartet from the Eleventh, but the opus-number jump testifies to how busy Shostakovich had been, producing two big concertos, several songs, smaller orchestral pieces, and film music. He completed the quartet on March 11, 1968, and the Beethoven Quartet gave the première in Moscow on June 14. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to the leader of the Beethoven Quartet, Dmitri Tsyganov. Quartets for the other two members were soon to follow.

The Twelfth Quartet is formally as unorthodox as the Eleventh, but in the opposite direction, having just two movements, of which the first is a sonata form of regular length and the second, a twenty-minute conflation of scherzo, slow movement, and finale. Even more startling to observers at the time, and startling still, is the presence of themes that, like twelve-tone rows in serial music, include all the notes of the chromatic scale once each. As if to draw attention to this feature, the work opens with the cello, by itself, playing a twelve-tone melody. Of course, the foundations of Shostakovich’s music in traditional tonality remain in place; this is, after all, a quartet in D flat – though the choice of such an abstruse and, for string players, awkward key may have had something to do with the composer’s wish for harmony that would be, even more than usually for him, deeply shaded and imperiled.

Almost certainly, this exercise in twelve-tone composition amused Shostakovich. But his interest may also have been caught by what Soviet composers of the next generation were up to. Using what little information was available about contemporary music in the west, an avant-garde was beginning to exert itself, whose chief members at first were Andrei Volkonsky and Edison Denisov, joined later by Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. To all these composers, serialism was irresistible, and their enthusiasm may have communicated itself to the one who was by now the grand old man of Soviet music. Or perhaps Shostakovich intended a creative admonishment, a demonstration that serialism could be, and should be, subsumed within the old tonality. As always, his motivations and purposes remain uncertain. Perhaps twelve-note melodies simply offered the way to another shade of melancholy.

As in all his quartets since the Eighth, the first movement is on the slow side. It is, however, in full sonata form, which had not been the case since the allegretto opening of the Seventh Quartet, and the second subject is clearly set off by its faster speed. The twelve-tone idea introduced by the cello is made to fit into a tonal landscape, cadencing onto a sustained D flat, which sounds like the correct destination after two attempts, for the twelve notes ask to be heard here as three variations of a four-note principle, each starting with a rising fourth and going up in whole-tone steps: C–F–C flat–B flat, D–G–G flat–E flat, F flat–B double flat–A flat–D flat.  A wandering line takes over at this point, and becomes the first subject’s main material, against a slow-moving background. The dance-like second subject is initiated by the first violin with another twelve-tone theme, distinct from the first, which the viola brings back, up a half-step, to start the short development. After this comes a recapitulation of the second subject, beginning now in the cello and briefly interrupted by the first violin remembering the opening twelve-tone succession. This is heard again, once more from unaccompanied cello and in D flat, toward the end of the first subject’s reprise.

The second movement begins as a scherzo, with a cascade of trills from the upper instruments answered by a very Shostakovichian cello motif (a version of the binding motif from the Eleventh Quartet).  This is extensively developed, before and after a trio section whose rushing scales spin off from another twelve-tone idea.  After a repeat of this trio, played sul ponticello (near the bridge), there is a transition to the slow movement, which the cello begins with yet another twelve-tone melody – or, properly, a thirteen-tone one, since it ends back on its first note. Again recalling the Eleventh Quartet, this adagio intercuts phrases of the melody’s extension with chant from the other instruments. It gives way to a cadenza for the first violin, reminding us that the work was dedicated to the leader of the Beethoven Quartet, after which the themes of the first movement begin to materialize. As this happens, the second violin is silent for a long while, in what may be another memorial to the one original member of the quartet who had died. The instrument returns just before a return to the scherzo, whose tempo is maintained as the work triumphantly asserts D flat major in what may be the most victorious ending to be found among Shostakovich’s quartets.

Concert 5: Wednesday May 13 at 8.00 pm

String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Opus 138 (1970)


        Doppio movimento

        Tempo primo

        (Played without pause)

Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets, like his fifteen symphonies, were emotional outlets for his deepest feeling and a reflection on what he called “an unhappy life with many sad events.”  There can be no more touching proof of his personal involvement in these quartets than the names of the dedicatees at the head of each score. Quartets 11 to 14 were dedicated in turn to members of the Beethoven Quartet who were noted for their performances of Shostakovich’s music. The Thirteenth Quartet was dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, the violist of the quartet, who was assigned a prominent part.

The last four of Shostakovich’s string quartets have been described as “music on the edge”.

Shostakovich wrote the Thirteenth String Quartet while he was a patient in the hospital in Korgan. Similar to his Fourteenth Symphony, it is a dark, almost painful work. While easier to understand than its predecessor, it is more deeply disturbing.

It is difficult to say what gives this quartet a sense of urgency. Every movement unfolds with an immediate and intense emotional pressure in which the listener must engage or be overwhelmed. Based on Shostakovich’s own statements, there is no doubt that he intended this and that his Russian audience understood. There is much plucking and scraping, use of quarter tones and the intensity and complexity are expressed by deceptively simple means. Clearly a sequel to the Twelfth Quartet, it too uses twelve note material, and gives prominence to the interval of the minor second. Overwhelmingly dark and painful in expression, it is a unified work, being composed of one continuous movement marked Adagio. It has a central span which is the largest part of the quartet and moves more quickly than the rest of the work. Here, Shostakovich’s imagery of violence reaches new heights. At one point four different minor tenths are played simultaneously with the utmost violence. Throughout most of this part a lamenting triplet figure persists and from time to time each of the players is directed to strike the belly of the instrument with the stick of the bow. The last sound we hear is a long, drawn out, high B flat that swells to bursting. Under the cumulative dramatic pressure, it rises in intensity from pp to ffff to create a microcosm of terror at the heart of the work. Although the music returns to the tonic towards the close of the work, there is no resolution of the emotional conflict.

String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major, Opus 142




Shostakovich is enshrined for all time in the music of his last quartets on which he continued working until the end of his life. These quartets, when taken in the context of the complete series, show an aging composer withdrawing into his own private world, confiding his innermost feelings to music. There can be no more touching proof of his personal involvement in these quartets than the names of the dedicatees at the head of each score. Quartets 11 to 14 were dedicated in turn to each of the original members of the Beethoven Quartet who gave the first performances of all of Shostakovich’s quartets. Quartet No. 14 was inscribed to the cellist Sergei Shirinsky who was given a particularly prominent part. Shostakovich always gave great importance to the individuality of his four players as well as to their corporate role in the ensemble. In this work, he seems to privately greet each player with a number of short recitative-like passages in concertante style. On the surface this quartet may seem deceptively light-hearted as the opening gives no clue to the emotional course the music will follow later. However, there is a subtle unity about the work that originates in the use of repeated viola notes at the beginning, which reappear under different disguises at several significant points and make their final appearance just a few bars from the end. The quartet was composed in the early part of 1973, and was also dedicated to the Fitzwilliam Quartet not long after they had played for him in New York.

The opening of the Allegretto is deceptively light-hearted with an inconsequential little tune on the cello and a sustained F sharp on the viola. Two interesting features of the tune worth noting are the reiteration of a single phrase, and its use in a rising as well as a falling version. A second related theme is also introduced by the cello.

The Adagio begins with a sparse accompanied theme in the first violin that is taken up by the cello partnered by the first violin. The texture remains sparse until the warmer middle section, which again features the cello. At the end of the movement, the first section of the Adagio is repeated. As it is important that the final Allegretto be heard in relation to the work as a whole, Shostakovich has the return of the first part of the Adagio lead directly into the final Allegretto.

In the final Allegretto the music grows from a simple beginning with hints of the past thematic material building to a climax featuring pairs of quavers followed by triplet quavers and then semiquavers, unlike anything else in the work. A wistful mood follows and both parts of the Adagio are recalled. The quartet ends suddenly with a return of the passionate part of the Adagio with the cello singing above the other instruments.


String Quartet in E flat major, No. 15, Opus 144







This final quartet, written in 1974, was one of the composer’s last completed works. The powerful images of Death suggest that Shostakovich was composing his own requiem.

The quartet begins with a quiet fugal lament. The six sections, played continuously, are all Adagios. Although there is remarkable variety within the one tempo designation, the prevailing tone is resigned and funereal.

The opening Elegie has a Russian intonation to its melody and harmony, faintly recalling the music of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky, and even the Russian Orthodox style.

The second movement is heralded by a succession of shrieks from each instrument in turn. These alternate with a macabre serenade which limps along as if it had lost all sense of direction, finally dying away in a very quiet pedal note played on the cello.

The Intermezzo explodes violently but quickly subsides. There is a striking moment when sustained single-note crescendos pierce the ear. The cello remains unmoved throughout, as if no longer aware of what is happening around him.

The plaintive melody of the bitter-sweet Nocturne weaves through gently undulating shadows, then towards the end, the violins tap out an ominous rhythm, a premonition of the funeral march which is now emphatically announced by all four instruments together. The main part of the Trauermarsch movement is entirely solo, each strain being punctuated by the march rhythm.

Like the Intermezzo, the Finale erupts, but amid a succession of weird wailings and tremblings, manages to recall blurred memories of earlier parts of the work. The semitonal trill is an ever-present specter, eventually leading to the final chant, through it, and beyond into nothingness.