This Tuesday will be the 73rd anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, who died four years ago, about seven weeks shy of completing his 69th year. The 73rd is not an anniversary one might expect to be marked by major events in the way of commemorative tribute, but his occasion happens to coincide with one of the most significant achievements in this composer's discography, the completion of the "integral" recording of his 15 string quartets undertaken four years ago by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet for London/Decca's affiliate label L'Oiseau-Lyre.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Fitzwilliam Quartet itself. Its four members were still undergraduates at Cambridge University when the ensemble made its debut at the Sheffield Arts Festival -- with Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 on the program. Two years later they became the resident quartet at the University of York, where in 1972 they gave the English premiere of Shostakovich's 13th Quartet. The composer came from Moscow for that occasion, recognized the young Englishmen's affinity for his music, and formed a bond of friendship with them which continued through correspondence until his death and continues now with visits to his widow as well as exceptionally communicative performances of his music.
It is not at all surprising that this friendship with the old and ailing Russian composer was both immediate and real, for the Fitzwilliams were not merely performing his compositions (they introduced the last two quartets in Britain, too), but had gone deep inside the ones that are probably his most personal utterances. Shostakovich's symphonies, of which he produced the same number as the quartets, also have their personal and even "autobiographical" moments, but the intimacies of the symphonic cycle are balanced by more "public" gestures.
This still-young foursome has given several full cycles of the Shostakovich quartets in England, and played three of them during a six-week residence at Buckness University in Pennsylvania last year. (While they were in the U.S. the Fitzwilliams played an all-but unnoticed benefit concert in Washington.) In recording these works, they are up against the authoritative recordings of Nos. 1 through 11 by the Borodin Quartet on Seraphim, as well as various other versions of some of the individual works by other senior groups, and a new "integral" cycle by the USSR's Taneyev Quartet has just been announced for imminent release. The young Britons have more than held their own so far, and by now I feel it is against their versions that future ones will have to be measured.
They began the cycle, in 1975, with some of the most profound of the quartets: No. 8, which is central to the cycle in more than the numerical sense; No. 7, chosen by Shostakovich himself as one of his own favorites, and the three final quartets, which are undisguised gestures of farewell in varying moods.The completion has come with the presentation of earlier works, lighter in mood (if still far from being "light music") and more ingratiating in their rhythms and colors: Nos. 1 and 2, on DSLO 31, and Nos. 9 and 10, on DSLO 30. If there has been any change at all in the course of this glorious cycle, it is that the playing itself has become, by subtle degrees, more free and assured, and, by less subtle degrees, more handsome and glistening in its own right. A showpiece for sure is DSLO 23, with its stunning performances of Nos. 4 and 12; but every one of the seven discs is a treasure. And collectively, with what they tell us about Shostakovich and a capacity for poetry only rarely suggested in the symphonies (masterworks though some of them be), they add up to a choice example of the whole greater than the sum of its parts.The sound itself is consistently first-rate in its clarity, richness and overall balance.
The Fitzwilliams have recorded nothing but Shostakovich so far. Now that this cycle is completed, it will be interesting to hear them in other repertory; the Borodin Second Quartet may already have been taped, and I believe, the Franck Quartet, and there are plans for the Shostakovich Quintet when a suitable pianist can be lined up. If they should never record another note, though, these four musicians have earned gratitude and respect beyond measure for these seven discs. (In addition to those whose numbers are given above, there are DSL 29, with Quartets Nos. 5 and 6; DSLO 28, with Nos. 3 and 11; DSLO 9, with Nos. 7, 13 and 14, and DSLO 11, with Nos. 8 and 15.)