Shostakovich Quartet No. 11 in F minor Op. 122

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich (b. 1906 - d. 1975)
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Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich (b. 1906 - d. 1975)

Performance date: 30/06/2017

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1966

Duration: 00:17:43

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson [violins], Masumi Per Rostad [viola], Brandon Vamos [cello]) - [quartet]

This Quartet is the first of four dedicated to individual members of the original Beethoven Quartet, that premiered all of Shostakovich’s quartets except the first and the last. The dedicatee was Vasili Shirinsky, the second violinist in the Quartet; he had died the previous year. The quartet is cast very much in the mood of the Seventh Quartet that he wrote in memory of Nina, his first wife; that is without overt sorrow or mourning or anger, more a reminder of their lives and what they had meant to the composer. And again like the Seventh it is epigrammatically brief with the seven perfectly crafted movements flowing into each other without a break. 

Just to give an idea of the brevity of this work, none of the first five movements last as long as 3 minutes and the last two only just exceed 4 minutes. The movements are unified by a miniature chorale theme heard midway through the Introduction. This theme provides the melodic outline for the succeeding Scherzo and runs like a thread through the other movements. One of the many wonders of this exquisite quartet is the delicate way Shostakovich crafts the transition from movement to movement. 

The quartet opens gently with a sinuous theme in the first violin that dominates that movement entirely apart from the statements of the chorale. The same instrument leads the way into the restrained little Scherzo, where the chief topic is a series of delightful glissando jokes passed from one voice to another. The Recitativ provides the shudder of violence missing from the Scherzo, but it quickly fades away. The Etude is a wild flurry from the first violin leading totally unexpectedly into another fortissimo outburst and suddenly we are in the Humoreske, which cruelly spotlights the second violin with the cuckoo clock-like mechanical repetition that drives the movement along until the witty postscript fades out into his Elegy, where he is given the espressivo lamentation over the throbbing bass. 

The Quartet’s and the composer’s sense of loss is hinted at the close of this lovely lament – a short ten note melody is played arco by the first violin followed con sordino on the second violin before fading into the gently susurrating opening bars of the Finale with the chirpy variant of the theme in witty counterpoint. This transition is pure magic, almost as ethereal as the lament. As a farewell to a colleague of forty years standing, it would be hard to find anything more touching than this self-effacing movement; the jokes from the Scherzo are recalled and the passacaglia bass from the Elegy is inevitably brought back for the last goodbye. The dying fall at the very end is perfection.