Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68

April 22, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68, (1944)

Dmitri ShostakovichSince the latter part of the 20th century following his death in 1975, the string quartet cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich has come to be regarded as extraordinarily significant. While his fifteen symphonies command attention and demonstrate his creative and prodigious career, they were large spectacles staged for grand public expression subject to broad scrutiny by a totalitarian regime, subject, as well, to the changing complex public image Shostakovich chose, or was forced, to display. The string quartets are different. They are private, personal, intimate and true. They embody music Shostakovich wrote for colleagues, friends, family and himself. And it is particularly this dichotomous context that makes the fifteen string quartets so compelling. Within the music, one finds startling and original music of profound, visceral affect, ample creative genius, but also something of the actual life of Shostakovich: a personal diary of poignant reactions, reflections and dark visions. As the (incomplete) cycle spans some thirty-six years of his life, from the age of thirty-two to less than a year before his death, one can follow the quartets and thereby follow Shostakovich, an immensely creative and sensitive Soviet citizen weathering the myriad personal and global devastations of the 20th century. Across the cycle, the music changes, starting with a fresh exuberance, growing brilliant and fierce, apocalyptic, sardonic, agonized and cryptic, then sparse, alienated and ghostly. Finally, well before he could complete his proposed cycle of twenty-four quartets, one in each key, Shostakovich died and the music abruptly stops, the silence itself a lasting presence.

Written in 1944, the second string quartet is really Shostakovich's first great quartet imbued with his vivid, original style, a bold design and a completely individual character. It is a full four-movement program of great range featuring rich counterpoint, colorful textures, crisp forms and, especially, provocative atmospheres and moods. Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to fellow composer Vissarion J. Shebalin. It has been suggested, however, that Shostakovich more personally had Ivan Sollertinsky in mind, a dear friend who had just recently suffered an untimely death.

The first movement titled "Overture" follows a clear, classical sonata form with two themes, a development section and a recapitulation, a time-honored model serving a fresh, new voice. The first theme is bold, forthright and increasingly edgy. The second theme seems to scream with a keening upward glissando and the dissonance of twin fiddles in a wailing canon. After this and a probing development, the return of the opening material feels wounded and damaged.

The second movement is a beguiling, atmospheric lament beginning with a long, rhapsodic recitative for solo violin over a sustained drone in the lower strings. This is music inspired by Gypsies or Klezmer musicians, full of passion and suspense. One might expect a fast dance to follow, but Shostakovich transitions to a languid, sensuous adagio Romance in a late romantic style: sweet, dangerously alluring, perhaps deadly. The movement ends with a reprise of the recitative where, as before, the lower strings play sparse, hymn-like chords in simple, conventional harmony as a curious backdrop to the chromatic, improvisatory recitative. Next comes a rather eerie waltz. Soft, highly chromatic, almost ghostly, it evokes Mahler who had a profound influence on Shostakovich. Using a traditional three-part form, the middle section injects a bit of panic with a fleet moto perpetuo, nimble, but motoric and driving.

Shostakovich concludes his second quartet with a stunning theme and variations, undoubtedly the most remarkable movement of the quartet. It is a tour de force of musical imagination, emotional expression and dramatic development. Framed by a somber, unison invocation at the beginning and the end, a mournful Russian-sounding song gives rise to a series of wide-ranging variations that seem to build in tension and volume projecting, at times, a symphonic fullness of sound and might. Full of Russian dances, ironic waltzes, stormy declamations and clever deconstructions, Shostakovich writes with the relentless creative invention and force of Beethoven. Towards the end, one variation is a sort of Brahmsian hunting song leering with a sardonic, harmonically sour undercurrent. One simply marvels at Shostakovich's artistry, especially knowing that so many more brilliant string quartets would follow. This is just the beginning.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.