Opus 11: Two Pieces for String Octet (1924-1925)

Two Pieces for String Octet, op. 11 (1924-1925)
CD:  Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3, etc., Borodin Quartet and Prokofiev Quartet (BMG/Melodiya 74321 40713 2)

This one’s been at the periphery of my knowledge of Shostakovich’s music for more than a decade, since this 1964 recording by the Borodin and Prokofiev Quartets came included with the Borodins’ Shostakovich quartet box set that I picked up the summer before I started college.  (The BMG release is out of print, their partnership with Melodiya having expired; Melodiya has rereleased it on CD under their own brand, although the line apparently isn’t being marketed in the U.S.)  I’ve listened to it often enough over the years but without forming a clear mental concept of it.  I also missed a Portland performance of it this summer at Chamber Music Northwest’s festival, which I never manage to hear as much of as I think I will before the concerts have to compete with the rest of my summer plans.

The Prelude isn’t a bad piece but not a very gripping one either.  Temperamentally it fits in with the Opus 8 trio, although it has more of an experimental vibe — gently experimental, by the standards of non-Russian music at the time — as Shostakovich continues to test new techniques.  He achieves some nice effects, for instance, early on, the vaporous passage excerpted below, but for me the Prelude doesn’t add up to more than a series of moody, sometimes evocative parts.

The Scherzo — an early example of Shostakovich ironically titling a movement, perhaps, since this second piece is violent and not particularly jokey — has stuck with me more over time, on account of it’s pretty sweet, certainly when you’re a teenager and not acquainted with much chamber music.  Then I was drawn most to some wormy-sounding slides a few seconds before the end:

For its entire four-plus minutes, though, the Scherzo gets by on that level of frazzled energy.  On this listening I was grabbed more by the chattering statement of the movement’s main theme (here at about 0:45):

There’s something in Shostakovich’s melodic development in both of these pieces — in all of his works so far, actually, including the noticeably better-crafted first symphony — that sounds more repetitive, more rigid, less surprising than in his fully mature style in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on, but the second piece here is certainly kinetic and abrasively charismatic enough to hold a listener’s attention for under five minutes.  The sound quality of this recording isn’t great, par for the course from Soviet recording technology of the 1960s, but the Borodins and Prokofievs sound tight and a little bit of sonic grittiness isn’t a bad fit for the Two Pieces’ style anyway.  It’s not an essential work, and I’m not sure I’d recommend the Borodin Quartet’s cycle, as good as it is, over the Emerson Quartet’s more recent one, which is astonishingly well-performed, better engineered, and without a recording of Opus 11.  But the bracing Scherzo makes it a piece of early Shostakovich chamber music worth listening to.

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