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Written by John Worrack
Published on Tuesday 30 January 2015

Coupling Tchaikovsky’s Serenade with Shostakovich’s Second Quartet seems eccentric even for an ensemble that, so the record blurb tells us, ‘habitually blends music from different ages, offering new perspectives and making unexpected connections’. Actually, it works well and is cleverly done. The performance of the Serenade is exceptionally lively and fresh, with an opening Andante exuberant rather than stately, and a bright, brisk Allegro whose speed, like that of the finale, sounds at times only just within reach. But all is well, and the Waltz has a freshness and sense of enjoyment matching the general spirit of a performance in which even the Elegy does not sound as if we should grieve too seriously.

But what has all this to do with Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet, a considerably longer work written in the depths of 1944 and for a different medium? Jonathan Morton, the Ensemble’s leader and director, has taken some risks. The relationship between the solo violin’s cantor-like intoning – another instance of Shostakovich’s deep sympathy with Jewish life and culture – loses something, or at any rate sounds substantially different, when pitted [against] an ensemble rather than three other players. On the other hand, Shostakovich was testing the capacity of the string quartet to an extreme towards the end of the work (even if this of itself has a point), and here the extra richness and depth do suit the music. Morton does not attempt to lighten Shostakovich’s Waltz, which the composer himself compared to that in the Third Suite of Tchaikovsky (who designated it ‘Valse mélancolique’). There is, though, a major difference between the two finales, though they both deal in variation technique, Tchaikovsky with plenty of folkish merriment, Shostakovich in a more developmental and reflective manner. The two works, in fact, are not only extremely well and intelligently played but give the listener much food for thought about Russia in their juxtaposition.

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