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 Recording of the Week  Shostakovich from the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin

Two related yet contrasting chamber works this week, from the pen of that introspective genius Dmitri Shostakovich – the passionate String Quartet No. 2 and the melodious Piano Quintet in G minor, both performed intelligently and sensitively by the Takács Quartet (with Marc-André Hamelin joining them for the Quintet).

Having been out of political favour for much of Shostakovich's early career, in the late 1930s the string quartet and other forms of chamber music began gradually to be rehabilitated, thanks in large part to the musicianship of the Beethoven Quartet. Shostakovich evidently developed quite a close relationship with the ensemble, as both works on this disc suggest. His second String Quartet was written with them in mind as the intended performers, and indeed the premiere saw Shostakovich share the stage with two of their members for the first performance of his Second Piano Trio.

Takács Quartet
Takács Quartet

The String Quartet is kicked off by a powerful, almost folk-like opening in which open fifths feature prominently; there is little let-up in the intensity throughout the first movement, and even the meditative second retains a sense of something suppressed, just beneath the surface. For the third movement, a waltz, Shostakovich specifies that the players should play with mutes for the entire movement, further reinforcing the idea of the music straining against some kind of leash. The Takács Quartet’s fortissimos become ever louder and more climactic while their sound is always held back by the mutes, which deny that last extra ounce of brightness and eventually seem to force the music down again into a subdued mood.

The Piano Quintet has a rather pleasant story behind it – Shostakovich was so impressed by the Beethoven Quartet’s performances of his first String Quartet that, rather than continue working on his second, he decided to transform the embryonic work into a quintet to allow himself to perform it with them! It is cast in a slightly neo-Baroque vein, with the first movements a prelude and fugue respectively, and its style is generally less acerbic and angst-ridden than some of his other chamber works, even at times seeming harmonically backward-looking.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this relatively trouble-free feeling, it was a definite hit with the Soviet cultural authorities and music-lovers alike; the Scherzo of the Quintet reportedly became such a favourite with contemporary audiences that, together with the Finale, it was encored at almost every performance – and it’s not hard to see why! It’s a rollicking ride, with those characteristically bright Shostakovich octaves in the piano (reminding me rather of the First Piano Concerto) really biting from Hamelin.

Sandwiched between these two upbeat crowd-pleasers, though, is a rather unusual slow movement – and it’s the performance of this that really stayed with me more than any of the others. Constructed over a steady walking bass-line reminiscent of that in Bach’s famous Air, it moves from solemnity to a deep yearning – not the tortured anguish of the Fifth Symphony by any means, but somehow a more personal sadness expressed in turn by the piano and the violin as they take on semi-soloistic roles.

Gratitude is definitely due to the Beethoven Quartet for inspiring these works in the first place; but it’s hard to imagine a better performance than those given by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin. I find their tutti playing particularly excellent; the big chordal climaxes in both works show off their absolutely peerless ensemble, and the interplay with Hamelin in the Quintet is sensitive and well-judged. These are two works that it’s definitely worth getting to know, and Hamelin and the Takács Quartet are fine ambassadors for them.

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet & String Quartet No. 2

Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Takács Quartet

Available Format: CD