No opus number: Two Pieces for String Quartet (1931)

Two Pieces for String Quartet (no opus number, 1931)
CD:  Shostakovich: The String Quartets, Emerson Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 284-2)

Contra my plan earlier this week, let’s save Prokofiev for another day and listen to these two transcriptions for string quartet.  I haven’t concocted a consistent approach to the various transcriptions of Shostakovich’s music, by himself or by others.  Whether or not I write about it will probably depend on a scientific, case-by-case evaluation based on its novelty, whether the composer transcribed it himself, what if anything it contributes to an understanding of his career, whether I own it on CD already, or any number of other, unthought-of but nonetheless pressing factors.

At any rate, the two string quartet transcriptions from 1931, the first of an aria from the still incomplete Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the other of the irrepressible Golden Age polka.  Shostakovich had not yet composed his first string quartet — the pieces for string octet, op. 11 were his closest approach to date — so these two pieces stand as an early exercise in the form.

The Emerson Quartet includes them in their remarkable recording of the complete string quartets; the album puckishly titles them “Adagio” and “Allegretto”, after the tempo markings that Shostakovich applied with increasing exclusivity in his late works.  Despite the Emersons’ tautness and intensity, the aria (Katerina’s song of loneliness and frustration from Act I, which I mentioned in describing the romances on Japanese poems) sounds more staid in the instrumental version than when sung by a soprano, particularly in its climax — the melodic line’s angles and leaps are a more familiar idiom for string instruments than for the voice.  The quartet arrangement is more striking in the aria’s long tailing-off, and the Emersons make the most of the piece’s shadowy atmosphere:

The polka’s charms would probably survive any instrumentation.  Here the Emersons’ forceful pizzicato playing serves it especially well, along with their ability to switch instantly from a bone-dry modernist style to lusty fiddling.  It’s a less buffoonish read on the polka than I think is typical, but it’s a likeably prickly one.  A comical-looking musical cactus, if you will.

All of this makes me look forward to listening to the opera and, eventually, the string quartets.  It’s fun learning the lesser-known corners of Shostakovich’s early career but — although so far I would rate New Babylon and The Golden Age as major works, and unjustly underappreciated ones — his best works are the major ones I’ve heard many times before.

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