INKPOT#79 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartets Vol.3 – Nos. 6, 7 & 8. Manhattan String Quartet (ESS.A.Y)


Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1901-1973)Complete String Quartets Vol.3

Quartet No. 6 in G, Op. 101
Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

Eric Lewis Roy Lewis violins
John Dexter viola
Judith Glyde cello 

ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1009
[57:56] full-price

by Derek Lim 

This volume from the complete Shostakovich Quartets cycle by the Manhattan Quartet really shows off the technical polish of the group – they all have a very beautiful, and expressive, if small tone. From the very opening of the first track – the Sixth Quartet – the sheer smoothness of their playing is quite a contrast with the Borodin Quartet’s more rough-and-ready approach (on Melodiya 40711).  

The Sixth Quartet shares the rarified air of the first movement of that savage symphony, Shostakovich’s Seventh. The Manhattan Quartet’s sleek, very polished performance makes for very enjoyable listening, but in some spots, this has the quality of reducing the sense of fear and that on-the-edge nervy feeling that I’ve come to expect of the Sixth. Try the first movement. At around 3:30 (in this recording) there is a spot of Mahlerian quotation from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony’s Rondo-Burlesque – in the Borodin Quartet version there is a savageness that I find lacking in this performance. 

Throughout this quartet I find sound-worlds more reminiscent of the “Impressionists”, or at least the French style. In the second movement, for example, the Manhattans choose to play at a rather measured tempo (the marking is “Moderato con moto”) – they could be construed to be playing a piece of dance music (read: background). Rarely is there that weary quality that I am looking for. The Russian theme introduced by the 1st Violin solo is beautifully played, but without the same character of wistfulness evoked by the Borodin Quartet. Much as I hate to say it (I really love the beauty of their tone) this isn’t really Shostakovichian in character. 

Shostakovich’s po-faced humour (reminiscent of Prokofiev) in the first movement of the Seventh Quartet is brought out rather more successfully, though the 1st Violin starts getting problems here. The sense of musical argument and dialogue is not quite as strong as that, again, of the Borodin Quartet, which manages to convey a really robust conversation. It is in the second movement that their evocative playing, with its Impressionist overtones really comes into its own, with much colour and mystery, reminding one of Schoenberg’s Verklrte Nacht, among other things. The intrusion of the theme in the third movement is finally as savage as I like it, although here again I find the Borodin Quartet a little more involving in the virtuosity and management of the Burlesque (Mahlerian influence again here!) 

Shostakovich The Eighth Quartet is where the Manhattans make the most obvious attempt to play in an echt-Shostakovichian manner. This work is very strong and it can take many interpretations. The first movement, Largo, sounds well indeed. As we go on however, the over-the-top performance tends to get in the way. In the second movement, for example, instead of a firm tempo suggesting a similar tenacious nature (either of Shostakovich or his pursuers) the impression is one of histrionics. The third movement, with its arresting violin opening and DSCH theme which sticks in your head, is much deliberate and better thought-out, though sections are not linked quite as well together (say, the section before the painful pizzicati). The section linking the spot before the first theme from the Cello Concerto No.1 which suddenly appears (like a bogeyman from nowhere) is taken in a pretty hysterical manner. 

The fourth movement starts with frightening knocks on the door, one might say, over a dead long note. Here the Manhattan Quartet choose to take it at a relatively fast tempo, more Andante than Largo (the Borodins keep the tension building with their more deliberate tempo). It seems nearly perfunctory compared with the Borodin’s choice of tempo. Yet, listening later [3:40], one finds really ravishing playing here, with great colour, nearly wind-like. The last movement finally lays the work into its eternal resting ground. I would have preferred this to be in a less “knowing” way, which makes the ending in a way less touching than if it were played straightforwardly. In a few words, I think that a little more subtlety is needed in this quartet. Put another way, this is over-the-top playing, and sometimes I would prefer art to hide art. 

The instruments are all colourfully and warmly captured. Watch for this quartet if they recod Ravel or Debussy. For these Shostakovich Quartets, I found the Manhattans’ sound-world adds a different dimension. The Borodins make a good first choice at mid-price. Try to listen to the Borodin Quartet (second recording, on Melodiya) first, and then sample the Essay recording and see if you like the Manhattans’ style. Having lived with this performance for a while, I can say that their interpretations remain interesting. An interesting supplement, then. 

In Singapore, Melodiya and Essay discs are available at or can be ordered from Borders (Wheelock Place), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or HMV (The Heeren). 

Derek Lim is looking for a system where he can have his very own musical insignia..

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