SHOSTAKOVICH: The 15 String Quartets
Fitzwilliam String Quartet
London 455 776 (6 CDs) (ADD) (M) TT: 51:39; 57:47; 70:56; 71:43; 63:32; 61:30 

Of all the composers active in this waning century, three stand apart from the rest as masters of the string quartet, Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The Hungarian wrote six before his immigration to the U.S. in 1940 (from where I listen, much of his other music has been overrated by guilty posterity). Each of the last four includes a folk-rooted movement of manic energy that I once transferred to a single audio cassette for quick reference and undiluted pleasure.

The Englishman wrote just three, but what a trio! (I'll risk further contumely by saying that most of his music, not just the quartets, is currently underrated—even by Britcrix, who since Britten's death have attached themselves, like remora, to living composers for free meals in exchange for linage.)

The Russian master, however, wrote 15—one more than Dvorák, one less than Beethoven—and they are the most neglected of his most private and frequently best music. Not by recordists, true, starting with the Soviet Union's Borodin and later Beethoven String Quartets (on EMI and Consonance, respectively), the Brodsky (Teldec), Éder (Naxos), Manhattan (ESS.A.Y.), Shostakovich (Olympia) String Quartets, and Great Britain's Fitzwilliam four (dating from the analog '70s, on London).

I don't pretend to know the complete Beethoven, Brodsky, Éder, Manhattan or Shostakovich versions, although I've heard part (or parts) of all but the last-named group. I learned this music, work by work, from the storied Borodin performances, recorded both loudly and reverberantly (as Melodiya favored in predigital days), on gut strings (or so they sounded), with an all-out expressiveness that struck me sometimes as vulgar. The composer endorsed them, though, and dedicated several later quarters to various members. But when the Fitzwilliam versions began to appear, not only did I find them vastly better recorded but interpretively more inward, revealing sorrow and subtleties that Soviet teams—perhaps because they were Soviet—tender either to Tchaikovskyize or to play down.

There's no sadder, or recurringly gloomy body of works in the literature—in a sense they are chamber music's reply to Schubert's Die Winterreise. I mean, you play them one at a time during the dark hours, privately, not as "get up in the morning" music. Shostakovich didn't write his first one until 1938, a year after the rehabilitative Fifth Symphony, by which time he was already 31. The death-threat of Stalin hung heavily over him, and would do so until his arch-nemesis' death in 1953. The last quartet (in E-flat minor, Op. 144) appeared less than a year before his own death in 1975.

One and all are acquired tastes, by no means for everyone (there were times of personal travail when I couldn't bear listening to them, yet always kept the Fitzwilliams' complete set on SDs). It was the lure several years ago of Nos. 4, 11 and 14 played by my favorite string quartet in the world—the Hagen, on DGG 445 864, whose Mozart to date has been perfection, technically and tonally as well as musically—that brought me back to this somber literature.

When London reissued their Fitzwilliam collection in a six-CD cardboard box at a list price of $48, I couldn't resist. Not only are they as carefully played and emotionally fine-tuned as I'd remembered, they've been remastered without a trace of glare or digital liposuction. If you have other (or all the other) versions and are satisfied, lucky you to have joined Shostakovich in his most private and poignant world. I've read somewhere recently that the eminent Emersons are recording—or have completed—their take on the 15. If these prove as compelling as their complete Bartók, they may outrun the competition, although—assuming that DGG will issue them—the cost could double per disc.

Having reestablished a once-close acquaintance with the Fitzwilliams' version, I'll keep this box, the Emersons notwithstanding, and forever treasure Alan George's insightful, incisive program notes.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)