SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartets Nos 7, 8 & 9 (Altius Quartet)
It is curious how rarely these three quartets, written in relatively close proximity (Nos 7 and 8 in 1960, No 9 – along with No 10 – in 1964), are programmed together on disc. Of currently available single-disc alternatives, only the Brodsky’s Warner Apex reissue (from their early Teldec cycle) favours the strict numerical sequence.
For the Altius Quartet, it is more than a matter of chronology. They regard these works as a ‘personal’ triptych, Nos 7 and 9 dedicated to Shostakovich’s first and last wives and the Eighth famously his autobiography in music, shot through with self-quotations. There is much in that, although I am not sure I entirely go along with the works’ fitting ‘an arc of birth, death and revival’ – there is a lot more going on than the rather facile description in the booklet suggests – but they do make a case for their interconnectedness. However, so do their rivals.
These are highly competent if not quite first-division accounts. The Gramophone Award-winning Emerson play with greater attack (‘turbo-charged perfectionism’, in David Gutman’s memorable phrase, 12/16) and understanding of the music’s layers within layers – as do the Borodin. Comparisons of the opening of the Allegro third span of No 7 or the Eighth’s ‘dance of death’ in the Allegro molto confirm the greater intensity of the best of their rivals; in the Adagio of No 9 they do not match the white heat of the Emerson’s playing. Navona’s sound is very fine, the recording close-miked but not claustrophobic.