In one of the more ironic twists on the music scene, the Soviet-based Beethoven Quartet became more closely associated with the quartets of Shostakovich than with those of its namesake. It gave the world premieres of most of Shostakovich's quartets, six of which are dedicated either to the quartet collectively or to individual members. The composer himself performed and recorded with the ensemble, and many Shostakovich mavens regard the Beethoven Quartet performances of the 15 Shostakovich quartets as benchmarks against which to judge all others. Dedicated and committed as the group was to Shostakovich's music, the Beethoven Quartet performed a wide range of compositions -- more than 600 -- including all the quartets of Beethoven and even little known works by such Russian composers as Alexander Alyabyev. Still, it is for the Shostakovich that this great ensemble will be most remembered. The Beethoven Quartet made numerous recordings over the years, many of them available on Melodiya and Doremi.
The Beethoven Quartet was originally founded as the Moscow Conservatory Quartet in 1922 by four then-recent graduates of the conservatory. The original members were Dmitri Tsyganov (first violin), Vasily Shirinsky (second violin), Vadim Borisovsky (viola), and Sergei Shirinsky (cello). In the early years the ensemble gradually built a reputation as one of the finest young quartets in the Soviet Union. The group changed its name to the Beethoven Quartet in 1931. By the late '30s it had attracted the attention of Shostakovich, who composed his Piano Quartet in 1940, dedicating it to the BQ. Shostakovich made memorable but very different recordings of the work with the ensemble in both 1940 and 1955.
The BQ premiered the composer's Second Quartet in 1944 and gave the premieres of the remainder, except No. 14 and No. 15. In 1956 the ensemble began recording the composer's quartets. Borisovsky left the BQ in 1964 and was replaced by Fyodor Druzhinin, by which time the ensemble was working on the newly composed Ninth Quartet. In 1965 Vasily Shirinsky departed and was replaced by Nicolai Zabavnikov.
The BQ finished recording the quartets in 1975, with Yevgeny Altman on cello as replacement for Sergei Shirinsky, who died the previous year. One final personnel change in 1977 ended an era: the last original member, Dmitri Tsyganov, departed. His replacement, Oleh Krysa, served as first violinist until the group disbanded in 1987. The BQ's acclaimed set of the 15 Shostakovich quartets was reissued by Doremi Records in 2006.