This work is an arrangement of Shostakovich's 1960 String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110, by the well-known conductor Rudolf Barshai. It is a quite literal transcription of a work whose original instrumentation is undoubtedly well-suited to the music. Barshai's larger arrangement then, should be regarded as an alternative version whose primary purpose is to allow greater access to Shostakovich's masterpiece.
The work is rife with quotations from Shostakovich's earlier works, including the First, Fifth and Tenth Symphonies, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Originally, the quartet was said by Soviet sources to be a musical exposé of Fascism, an explanation the composer did not initially challenge. Later, however, he is said to have denied the quartet was specifically associated with that idea, pointing out that the quotations from the works mentioned above would not be consistent with that interpretation. Moreover, Shostakovich quotes from the Russian song "Exhausted by the hardships of prison," whose presence in the work also cannot be reconciled with the official Soviet view of the composition.
Obviously this quartet was personal and carried much biographical significance for the composer. Indeed, the first movement Largo opens with the notes D, E flat, C and B, representing the German spelling of "DSCH," the monogram Shostakovich often used in his works. The music in this Largo is ominous and mournful, but sounds more tragic and intense in the original scoring. The savagery of the second movement, however, is conveyed quite effectively in the string orchestra arrangement. Here, Shostakovich quotes a Jewish theme that also appears in the finale of his Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 67.
The third movement, marked Allegretto, fares well in Barshai's arrangement, too, though the ensuing Largo movements are more tragic-laden, their anguish coming across with greater intensity and passion in the quartet. Yet, the three-note motif in the fourth movement may have greater power in the Barshai arrangement, and the "DSCH" motto that reappears in the finale is also appropriately conveyed in the string orchestra version.
In the end, it must be said that Barshai handles all the music of this complex and tragic work with great skill. There have been many recordings of his transcription, at least as many as the quartet itself.