Quatuor Byron

Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 8 & 9

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The Eighth and Ninth string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (the spelling on the cover of this release is French) make a compelling pair, and few will complain that this release by the pan-European Quatuor Byron clocks in at 51-odd minutes. The String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, is known to many music lovers through its string orchestra version by Rudolf Barshai. Its dedication indicates a tribute to the victims of fascism and war, but annotator Charles Sigel (the notes are in French, English, and German) argues that its mood of elegiac sadness followed by violence has more to do with a crisis Shostakovich experienced after agreeing to join the Communist Party in 1960. Indeed, Shostakovich apparently remarked to his daughter that he himself was the work's true dedicatee. The listener may find that the String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117, composed four years later, is more representative of inner conflict, with its ferocious pizzicato chords and sense of high inner drama in the finale that is more than twice as long as any of the other movements. Regardless of the autobiographical content, these are superbly concise works that vividly depict an artist's inner panic at the growing awareness of the hostility of the surrounding society. This is the very quality that continues to raise Shostakovich's importance and relevance, and the Quatuor Byron manages to deliver intense performances without losing the essential classicism and compactness of the musical language. They're a bit more restrained in the String Quartet No. 8 than the Borodin Quartet, but no less intense, and the dryly angry humor of the Two Pieces for string quartet (1931), adapted from operatic excerpts, makes the perfect intermezzo. Strongly recommended and exceptionally well recorded.

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