Next week Hyperion will release the first recording of performances of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich by the members of the Takács Quartet, violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér. They chose to begin with the second of the full quartets in the Shostakovich canon, Opus 68 in A major. This is coupled with his G minor piano quintet (Opus 57), for which they are joined by Marc-André Hamelin. For those who cannot wait, this album can be pre-ordered from Amazon.com.
For those who tend to approach Shostakovich’s music in the context of the complexities of his biographical narrative (to the extent that we really understand that narrative), this is a rather curious coupling of selections. Both are products of his “recovery” from his (first) denunciation by Soviet authorities in 1936. However, the quintet predates the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (which, at the time, was busy trying to invade Finland), while Opus 68 is one of several compositions written after war between the Soviet Union and Germany had begun and was dragging on at great (and barely endurable) length.
The Editorial Reviews section on the Amazon page describes the quintet at “deceptively backward-looking.” I am not sure if deception was ever intended. If Shostakovich had wanted to conceal his retrospection, I doubt that he would have called his first two movements “Prelude” and “Fugue!” Bach was clearly on his mind, although I would disagree with the booklet notes by David Fanning that suggest he used Bach as a model. I prefer to think that Bach provided him with a point of departure for the exercise of his own elaborate approaches to many voices in counterpoint, a setting for which a piano quintet provides dimensions beyond those encountered in Baroque music.
For my money the more interesting connection may be found in the fact that this quintet was completed shortly after the sixth symphony (Opus 54 in B minor). As I have previously observed, this is one of the symphonies in which the influence of Gustav Mahler is the most evident, particularly in the opening Largo movement, which is longer than the combined durations of the remaining two movements. Indeed, that Largo dominates the entire symphony the same way that “Der Abschied” dominates the entirety of Das Lied von der Erde.
Structurally, however, the quintet recalls Mahler’s seventh symphony. Both have an almost instantaneous scherzo packed with sardonic rhetoric sandwiched between two “blocks” of much larger proportion. In the case of Opus 57, those “blocks” consist of the opening prelude and fugue and the final two movements, which are an intermezzo and a finale. Then, as if he does not want the “Mahler connection” to escape our attention, Shostakovich concludes his finale with that same quietude we encounter at the end of “Der Abschied.” So, even if Mahler himself never wrote a prelude-fugue coupling, his spirit is far stronger than Bach’s! (Mahler aficionados also know that his only known piece of chamber music was an A minor piano quartet movement, but it is very unlikely that Shostakovich knew this.)
As was the case with the Opus 54 symphony, Mahler’s presence in Opus 57 is one of spirit, rather than substance. The performance by the Takács Quartet and Hamelin is all about Shostakovich and the rhetoric he was developing for his own expressiveness. That Scherzo even suggests that, having survived the heavy hand of Soviet authority, he could still crack a smile or two. Indeed, the Scherzo is very much at the belly-laugh level; and it met with enough favor that it became a favorite encore. Thus, one of the great virtues of this recording is the performers’ awareness of contrasting moods and their ability to bring those contrasts to the listener’s attention.
Thanks to the Nazis, on the other hand, the context in which Opus 68 was first performed (on November 14, 1944) was radically different. Actually, it was performed on the same program as the Opus 67 piano trio in E minor, which was also receiving its premiere. Opus 67 still stands as one of the most harrowing accounts of Nazi atrocities, particularly through choosing thematic material with clearly recognizable Jewish connotations. Furthermore, by 1944 Shostakovich was getting used to such bleak rhetoric without succumbing to out-and-out depression. He had completed his eighth symphony (Opus 65 in C minor) in September of 1943; and many would agree that this is the darkest of his fifteen symphonies, a cri de cœur arising from the desperation of living in a country immersed in war with no sign of a reversal of fortune, let alone a conclusion.
In that context Opus 68 seems to show Shostakovich taking refuge in working with conventional formal structures simply to get his mind off of all the misery surrounding him. The performance on this recording seems to reflect the possibility that it is best served by an abstract approach. It is not so much a matter of looking for a silver lining in the clouds of Opus 65 and Opus 67. Rather, it probably came about because Shostakovich finally worked up the courage to say to himself, “Enough of that! It’s time to do something else.” The abstractions at the core of Opus 68 provided him with a point of departure for moving to that “something else;” and the Takács Quartet performance provides some suggestion that, through this quartet, Shostakovich managed to find a suitable direction in which to move.
Because historical context can impact how we listen to Shostakovich, I would have preferred that the selections be reversed and performed in chronological order. On the other hand there is definitely something more satisfying about the quietude that established the sense of an ending in Opus 57. Given how much intensity is packed into these two compositions, there is much to appreciate in how the Hyperion producers chose to complete the album.