Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 5-8 (CD review)

Also, Miaskovsky: Quartet No. 13.  Pacifica Quartet. Cedille Records CDR 90000 127 (2-disc set).

The Soviet-Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a man of many moods; or least his music reflects many moods. I'm sure a lot of people, like me, tend to think first of his heavier, more-severe works, his fifteen symphonies of various degrees of complexity and angst, yet he could also produce colorful ballets or the delightfully rousing Festive Overture. In and out of favor with the Soviet government for not being conservative enough, Shostakovich always seemed to emerge on top by proving his traditional credentials while at the same time writing music that fit into modern trends. Love him or hate him, he created a ton of material, at least some which appeals to practically everybody.

The current two-disc set from Cedille Records, subtitled The Soviet Experience, Volume 1, presents four string quartets by Shostakovich and one by a contemporary, Nikolai Miaskovsky, that reflect some of the differing tempers of music in the Soviet Union, as interpreted by the Pacifica Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 92, written in 1952, is the fifth of fifteen string quartets the composer wrote. In three movements--fast, slow, fast--played without a break, the music demonstrates a point Professor William Hussey makes in his booklet notes (which are worth reading, by the way): "The informal nature of the string quartet allowed for private performances. So the quartet form became a useful outlet to the composer when the political climate was not conducive to public appraisal of his music." In other words, he could get away with more in the intimate, relatively private quartet than he could in big, public symphonic presentations where the Soviet censors would likely be lurking.

At the time Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Quartet, the Soviet government had already condemned his music as deviating from Socialist Realist tenets. With the Fifth, the composer continued to defy convention by including a number of conflicting motives and rhythms.

The String Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 from 1956 sounds remarkably more conventional, more lyrically Romantic, even classical, than No. 5. This seems odd because by this time Stalin had died, and there was a new cultural freedom in the Soviet Union. So why return to the past? Perhaps a new marriage had a calming effect on the composer. Or perhaps the music isn't as traditional as it appears.

In any case, the Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, violin; Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello) play Shostakovich as though born to it. Among the best small ensembles in the country, the Pacifica players perform with enthusiasm, passion, grace, precision, and, above all, virtuosity. If anyone could make Shostakovich come alive for twenty-first century ears, it's these folks.

The second disc contains two more Shostakovich quartets, Nos. 7 and 8, both from 1960, and the String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, Op. 86, by Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950).  Of the three, No. 8 is probably the most recognizable, the most personal, and the most tragic. The Pacifica players give it an ardent, heartfelt interpretation.

The Miaskovsky quartet reminds us that he was born and raised before the Russian Revolution and still adhered to much of the old school. Yet he had much to learn from the younger generation as well, and the music is at once melancholy, energetic, serene, and agitated. Again, the Pacifica Quartet seem more than happy to exploit these varying climates.

One of the usual pleasures of a Cedille recording is listening to the work of audio engineer Bill Maylone, who with co-engineer Judith Sherman, turns in another splendid job with the Shostakovich. Recorded in the Foelinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 2010 and 2011, the sonics are exceptionally smooth and natural. There is a clear separation of instruments without pinning each to the wall for minute examination. Although it's miked a tad close, making the group appear bigger and more widely spread out than they would probably sound in person, the effect is fairly effective in terms of midrange transparency, with a touch of hall ambience for added realism.

Finally, I would note the cover picture (see insert above), which Cedille point out they meant ironically, "as a (literally) striking representation of 'The Soviet Experience' for composers such as Shostakovich and Miaskovsky, especially at the time of their 5th and 13th Quartets, respectively, coming in the aftermath of the notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948." I like it.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa