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Reviews: Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 14 & 15, Two pieces, Op. 36 - Prazak Quartet

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Reviews: 1

Review by fausto K January 30, 2015 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Shostakovich's last two string quartets, written at short intervals, with the 15th written a year and a half before he died, are clearly also late works in the aesthetic sense; they might not be as radically modernist as his 12th, but they are challenging works nonetheless, both thematically as well as musically. Especially the 15th is a doleful, very bleak work, probably the bleakest of its kind, at least in the string quartet repertoire, in which Shostakovich wholly retreats into himself and reflects on pain and loss, couldn't care less about the usual aesthetic decorum expected of him, and resigns himself to the imminent end, his own end. It's often said that with the 15th he wrote his own Requiem.

As the real draw here is the 15th (both intrinsically and because of the Prazak's superb, exemplary rendition), I'll mainly address that quartet, but the 14th, dedicated to the cellist of the Beethoven String Qt, Shostakovich's faithful renderers, is certainly not less compelling albeit less famous. The only other recording of both quartets on SACD is that of the Mandelring, which are split over two distinct discs: Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets Vol. 4 - Mandelring Quartett and Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets Vol. 5 - Mandelring Quartett.

My two other references are an older recording by the now defunct Dutch Schoenberg String Qt, who recorded the 15th in 1993 for Attacca Records and in fact played the 15th on their very last tour in Amsterdam, in November 2008, a great performance, which I attended (a few years later I witnessed an equally mesmerising performance of the 15th by the Zehetmair String Qt in the Wigmore Hall in London), and the 15-year old cycle by the Emerson String Qt (see below).
The Schoenberg's recording of the 15th is typified by very slow tempi and an almost monkish concentration on the monodic nature of the music, which reinforces the mournful character of the quartet perfectly. Where the Schoenberg takes e.g. over 12 1/2 minutes for the 1st movement ("Elegy"), both the Prazak (11 minute sharp) and the Mandelring (10:52) seem more in a hurry. Partly due to a slightly muffled sound (this is a 1993 DDD redbook, after all) in contrast to the clarity of higher resolution SACD, the Schoenberg's approach seems more in tune with the elegiac mood of the movement. But this is only apparent, for especially in the case of the Prazak, although they take less time than the Schoenberg, the pace is still appropriately sedate. But I find the Mandelring less convincing here, since you don't get the feeling that they abide by Shostakovich's own hint that the 1st Satz should be played "as if the flies drop dead from the air and the public walks away out of sheer boredom". You do certainly get that feeling of languor when listening to the Schoenberg.
My other reference is the famous Grammy Award winning recording by the Emerson String Qt (which I have in the nifty first edition 2000 set, now deleted). To be honest, on re-hearing their interpretation, as a fan of sorts of the Emerson String Qt in general, I was a bit taken aback by their rather lacklustre performance of the 15th, not helped by a one-dimensional soundstage (of course, it's just RBCD). While I still care for the Schoenberg's monastic emphasis, despite its lack of hi-res polish, the Emerson, especially in regard to the 15th, clearly looses out in comparison to both the Mandelring and the Prazak, even disregarding sound. (I don't have the Borodin, since I have got the early Borodin set from the 70s, and of course the original Borodin String Qt didn't record the 14th and 15th).

The 15th, very unusually, unlike anything in the repertoire before Shostakovich (and after), consists of six adagio's without a break. The quartet is characterised by a tenebrous tonality throughout. The E-flat minor theme with which the 1st movement starts is reminiscent of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden", but one also hears an inspiration by Orthodox Church music, which gives the movement its chant-like feel. It's almost motionless, without drama. The movement expresses a state of being bleached of any vitality, but at the same time it exudes being at peace with Being itself.
The 2nd movement couldn't be more of a contrast, despite being called "Serenade" (there is a perfunctory waltz theme in there somewhere): it starts out with searing, shrill siren-like cries, by virtue of intense crescendo's of a high B flat starting in ppp and expanding to sffff, in a twelve-tone sequence, which utterly destroy the previous elegiac mood of the 1st movement. Are they screams of anguish?
The 3rd movement contains a dramatic solo violin cadenza. Although the Mandelring is more than up to the task, the Prazak are absolutely stupendous here. The 4th movement, the "Nocturne" is a simple march leading to the funeral march of the 5th movement, which is extremely sparse. The Epilogue contains an astounding solo violin.

The Mandelring play the notes alright in the 15th, but they seem less pensive, having a less configurative sense of the piece, sometimes resulting in a somewhat tentative, awkward rendition that doesn't befit the work's intrinsic bleakness and melancholy, as if, as performers, they were less emotionally involved, it seems. Technically, I found the Mandelring also less potent than the simply amazingly virtuosic Prazak. Whereas I found the Mandelring's playing at times a little too shrill (solo violins), or too plunking (cello) which in the 14th, being a higher velocity, more ferocious work, is rather apt (and, lest I be misunderstood, they really shine in the 14th) the Prazak produce an exquisite, filigreed sound, a more rounded tonal quality, which is more befitting of the quietist aesthetic of the 15th.

Let me say a little about the 14th. It's undoubtedly a great work in the canon of string quartets, perhaps a little less intuitively likeable than the 15th (or maybe that's just me being the curmudgeon), but not least because of the prominent place for the cello, no less impressive a piece of art. I think I find the Mandelring's rendering of the 1st movement of the 14th with its high tension lines for both cello and the violins and viola, slightly more compelling. With the Mandelring's razor sharp playing, the high treble passages really send shivers down one's spine, and I'd say here the close mic-ing is in fact beneficial (it is the sound of the Prazak that is a bit too reverberant here, in my view).
Overall, however, for all 3 movements, there is not that much difference between the Mandelring and Prazak recordings. Especially in the 3rd movement, in the way they handle the ferocious introduction to the high violin over a cello drone is mighty impressive, the Mandelring and Prazak are well-matched, but perhaps in the more serene last passages of that last movement the fretwork of the Prazak has the edge.

The two short early pieces for string quartet (op. 36) are beautifully performed (sometimes a bit too reverberantly recorded) and are a welcome respite before one is engulfed by the real gloom of the 15th (notice that they are not recorded by the Mandelring in their cycle).

As to recorded sound (stereo only, sorry), regarding the 15th, at times the Mandelring is much more reverberant (I played both Mandelring and Prazak at the same high volume), betraying its lower-res source (see /showreviews/6108#6703), with a more compressed dynamics, appearing closer mic-ed. By contrast, there is more ambience in the Prazak, without losing any clarity. In fact, I would say that the Prazak often is much more transparent, because of a wider soundstage, but my impression might also be due to the Prazak's greater virtuosity, at least in this piece. Overall, the sound of the Prazak is much more pleasing, with a more lyrical rounded tone.
I won't go into the debate on whether this is a DSD recording or not. (This is one of the first Praga discs, where there is no explicit information on the recording process, other than the vague description that it concerns a Multi-Channel SACD recording, which doesn't say anything about whether it is PCM or DSD recorded [and mixed].) At any rate, the sound, especially for the 15th, is excellent, much better than the Mandelring (i.e. for the 15th, as their 14th, on a different disc, is much better).
I found the Prazak rendering of the 14th a tiny bit less well sounding (as said, slightly too reverberant at times) this might have to do with the fact that it was recorded on a different date than the 15th and the two early pieces, or it might just be my subjective impression. (Not having a MC set-up, it might also be different for MC.)
Nevertheless, since the sound/recording of the 15th is so exquisite, I must give ***** for the recording overall.

Concluding, as for the 15th, it beats the Mandelring, both in terms of performance and sound, without denigrating the Mandelring, which I would give ****/****. For the 14th, I wouldn't want to substitute this one for the superior Mandelring, but it's well worth checking out, and definitely warrants purchasing, if you don't have the Mandelring (and since this, the Prazak's, 15th is mandatory, you will get the 14th as a bonus anyway.)

Not for nothing did the Prazak receive a Diapason D'or last November (unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down the review). I also give it the very highest recommendation!

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