Shostakovich, Fellow Outcasts Celebrated In CD Of String Quartets

The Netherlands-based Matangi Quartet strikes a blow for freedom of expression in a new CD, ‘Outcast.’ds (Photo by Tessa Veldhorst)

Outcast: Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor; Schnittke: String Quartet No. 3; Silvestro: String Quartet No. 1. Matangi Quartet. Matangi Music/Pias (Matangi MTM04).

DIGITAL REVIEW — A pianist in Moscow was playing the second of Franz Schubert’s Impromptus, Op. 90. As he was performing, Moscow police officers strode into the hall and abruptly terminated the recital.

The police were not there because the pianist was playing Schubert. They were there because Alexey Lyubimov was about to perform a composition written by fellow Ukrainian — and living composer — Valentin Silvestrov. The date was April 14, 2022.

How opportune, then, that The Netherlands’ Matangi Quartet released its new CD, Outcast, on March 9, only a few weeks before the Moscow raid. The new recording features works by Silvestrov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Alfred Schnittke, all of whom spent years censored by and in conflict with the Soviet-Russian authorities. In the liner notes, the Matangi Quartet refers to the CD as “an ode to musical troublemakers and outsiders…who wrote music that went dangerously against the tastes of the regime under which they lived. Described as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘western,’ they stuck their necks out with their work, risking their careers or — in the case of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin — even their personal freedom.”

The recording opens with Schnittke’s 1983 String Quartet No. 3. Although the work has been recorded by such eminent ensembles as the Kronos and Borodin quartets, the Matangi’s version certainly holds its own. In the first movement, the players linger on the quotation from Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, and they build the melancholy by keeping the tempo broad and emphasizing the dissonances in the interlocking lines of melody. In the second movement, the Lasso quotation quarrels with a hectic Viennese waltz that evolves into material that could have been written by a composer of the Second Viennese School (Berg, perhaps). Throughout, the expert voicings allow the music to sound busy but not chaotic. When the Lasso quotation returns in the third movement, Matangi’s thoughtful performance has prepared the ear.

The Silvestrov String Quartet No. 1, a one-movement work composed in 1974, contains multiple elements disliked by the Soviet authorities: a chorale-like opening; highly emotional, almost melancholy instrumental voicings; striking dissonance; melodies that explore the outer reaches of instrumental register; and sustained tones interspersed with lengthy pauses. Matangi’s tempo is slower than those in recordings by the Rosamunde and Lysenko quartets, but the ensemble’s leisurely pace accentuates the long tones and prolonged silences. Indeed, Matangi’s 25-minute version is not merely slower but appreciably so: The Rosamunde and Lysenko versions run only 21 and 20 minutes, respectively.

Silvestrov, 84, and his family left their hometown of Kyiv in March, and they are now living in Berlin. The composer is venerated by the Matangi members — Maria-Paula Majoor and Daniel Torrico Menacho, violins, Karsten Kleijer, viola, and Arno van der Vuurst, cello. The quartet states in the liner notes that it is “an ardent advocate of Silvestrov’s music and has developed a special personal and musical bond with him.”

The CD closes with the String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110, by Dmitri Shostakovich, King of the Outcasts. After years of censorship and opprobrium from the Soviet authorities, Shostakovich was exhausted and depressed. He dedicated the work “to the victims of war and fascism,” and, as observed in the liner notes, the quartet “especially resonates with personal traumas: the diagnosis of a serious spinal cord infection which paralyzed his right hand, and his forced membership of the Communist Party.

“After completing the piece, the composer contemplated suicide. He wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘I am writing a quartet that will be of no use to anyone. I imagine that after my death there will be no one who will compose a work in my memory. So I have decided to make such a work myself.”

Certainly Shostakovich demonstrates his authorship throughout the quartet. He peppers the work with his four-note musical signature, DSCH (D, E-flat, C, B). Further, the composer includes what he called a “Jewish” melody in the second movement; Shostakovich’s sympathy for the Jews, who were oppressed during the reign of Stalin, is well known. In the second movement, multiple frantic statements of the DSCH motif skitter around the Jewish theme, leaving no doubt that the work is by Shostakovich.

The Matangi Quartet seems to have it all: pristine technique, empathy for the composer’s vision, and a deep musicality.

In all three quartets, Matangi’s control of tone, technique, and voicing, along with measured rubato, is stellar. Matangi seems to have it all: pristine technique, empathy for the composer’s vision, and a deep musicality. The interpretations are eminently moving.

Nonetheless, a question comes to mind: Since the three quartets have been recorded a number of times, what has the Matangi Quartet contributed to the existing discography?

The most obvious contribution is the foursome’s defense of artistic freedom. The grouping of Schnittke, Silvestrov, and Shostakovich leads the listener to think beyond the usual absolute and technical aspects of the music. Rather, this bundling demands that the audience reflect on the political ramifications of writing music under a restrictive regime. How much of the Soviet Union’s musical censorship was based on aesthetic preferences, and how much related to the composer’s political opinions? How much of the censorship was punitive, and what became of the careers of banned composers?

Additionally, the selections emphasize the longevity of artistic oppression. The works — published in 1960, 1974, and 1983 — illustrate the entrenched attitudes of the Soviet (and now Russian) leadership. And, as pianist Alexey Lyubimov can attest, Russian censorship is alive and well.