PRODIGIES AMONG SOLO performers have always been with us, but when have there been so many oustanding string quartets organized by musicians in their early 20s? Among those active in our own country (some of their members having passed 30 by now) are the Tokyo. Cleveland and Concord Quartets, each with its own specially (classical, romantic and contemporary repertory, respectively) but more than proficient through the whole range of music for this instrumentation. The Alban Berg Quartet in Vienna and the Fresk Quartet in Stockholm are further examples, one of the several important young foursomes in Britain is the Fitzwilliam Quartet, which boasts an astonishing authority in the Shostakovich quarters.
The Fitzwilliam, resident at York University since 1971, was founded two years earlier and included Shostakovichhh's Eighth Quartet in its first program. In 1972 the composer heard this ensemble give the English premiere or his 13th Quartet in York, and a personal bond was formed between him and the young players, who subsequently introduced his two final quartets to English audiences and made the first recordings of them.
Shostakovich's chamber music still awaits discovery for most listeners who a familiar with his symphonies, and the discovery is anything but disapppointing. Even those who regard the symphonies as overblown, "politicized" or otherwise unsatisfying are astounded by the richness and depth of the string quartets, many of which use, in an entirely different way, themes from Shostakovich's symphonies and other works. While at least a half-dozen of his symphonies will surely hold a permanent place in the international repertory, the chamber music may just be recognized eventually as being of at least equal importance in Shostakovich's legacy.
As it turned out, Shostakovich wrote the same number of quartets as symphonies - 15. In each of these cycles, the last three works are "philosophically" concerned with death, and in each the work numbered 8 is central in more than the numerical sense. Beyond that, the reader is referred to the notes by Alan George, the Fitzwilliam violist, with the two splendid discs his group has made so far for L'Oiseau-Lyre, which includes the three final quartets and the two most interesting of the earlier ones: Nos. 7, 13 and 14 on DSLO-9, Nos. 8 and 15 on DSLO 11.
Taken with the Borodin Quartet's excellent and economical Seraphim sets of Shostakovich's Quarters Nos. 1-11 (SIC-6034/6035), this still leaves the 12th Quartet unaccounted for. This work is available so far only in the English edition of the selfsame Borodin Quartet set, which runs through No. 13 and is, of course, twice as costly as the Seraphim albums (EMI SLS-879). I would think that the Fitzwilliam will get around to No. 12 and the rest of the cycle before long.
Meanwhile, those who do opt for the import set or who have the other available version of No. 13 (the Beethoven Quartet on melodiya/Angel SR-40189. coupled with Oistrakh and Richer in the Violin Sonata), may avoid duplications by foregoing the Fitzwilliam recordings in favor of the Taneyev Quartet's Columbia/Melodiya disc of Nos. 14 and 15 (M 34327). The Russian players bring no less intensity to their performances than do the young Englishmen, and their recording of No. 15 has the advantage of being contained - all 36 minutes - on a single side (L'Oiseau-Lyre puts the final movement on side2).
It may be noted, too, that a group of top-noteh young musicians in Stockholm has given us a sensational new recording of another Shostakovich chamber masterwork, the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67. The performers are pianist Hans Palsson, violinist Arve Tellefsen and cellist Frans Helmerson, the record is HNH 4007 (earlier copies may be around on the Bis label as LP-26), andthe presentation of the Faure Trio on side 2 is everybit as fine as that of the Shostakovich.