Ever listened to an album by a band that was so good, you bought other albums by the same band, thinking they would all be good? Wasn’t it disappointing when they weren’t?
That was the fear which fueled my reluctance to explore the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Kronos Quartet introduced me to Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings, No. 8, and it rocketed to the top of my favorite classical music works on first listen. (Kronos’ Black Angels is an essential album for anyone who wishes to explore the repertoire of the 20th century.)
I loved the Eighth Quartet so much, I didn’t want to spoil it by potentially being disappointed by the other 14 quartets in his catalog. Of course, I would turn out to be wrong.
Shostakovich’s quartets are considered some of the most personal works by the composer. A number of them were "drawer works" — compositions he would stash in his drawer, knowing full well the Communist leadership of his time would disapprove of their content.
After years of reading about Shostakovich’s quartets, I finally asked the expert who works at Waterloo Records for a recommendation — which cycle should I listen to? He pitched me the cycle by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, which seems to be regarded as the definitive recordings of Shostakovich’s quartets.
I took the plunge, 16 years after having first encountered the Eighth Quartet. I’m glad I did.
These works have an incredible emotional range, veering from joy to poignancy, anger to resignation, mania to introspection. Shostakovich is most impressive when he writes in a faster tempo — the quartets get dense in thick harmonies, with lithe, chromatic melodies cutting through the cloud of sound.
His first few quartets, up to around the sixth, still show some roots to common period harmonies, but that center dissolves soon enough.
The Eighth Quartet, of course, marks a turning point in Shostakovich’s quartet writing. The autobiographical work, which quotes melodies from other Shostakovich works, shows an agility with the form that’s breathtaking and moving. As his quartets progress, they become increasingly introspective.
My fear that the other quartets wouldn’t live up to the Eighth Quartet were unfounded. In fact, the accessibility of the Eighth Quartet puts it in a different context — the conciseness of the Eleventh, the seeming whimsy of the Tenth and the intensity of the Second make the Eighth sound like the token pop single.
It doesn’t diminish my love for the work, though.
Kronos’ recording is the first I’ve heard of the Eighth Quartet, and as such, it’s my benchmark. That said, the Fitzwilliam interpretation has more fire, which translates to every performance in the complete cycle.
It’s uncommon to encounter an album riveting throughout the entirety of its length, so it’s tremendous to encounter a 6-hour, 6-CD set with few dead spots.
I’m still gunshy about exploring Shostakovich’s works with other kinds of ensembles — I haven’t warmed up to any of the four symphonies to which I tried listening — but the string quartets occupy a residential spot in my neighborhood of favorites.
The Fitzwilliam Quartet cycle is a great investment on any metric.