While classical musicians are expected to be able to play anything put in front of them, there’s no denying that harrowing emotional content makes it more difficult. So when a string quartet decides to record Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No. 8 – arguably the greatest and most relevant string quartet ever written – it’s worth checking out. Classical fans know the backstory well: the composer, fearing for his life as he was being pressured to join the Soviet communist party, decided to go for broke and write his own obituary. As protest music, it is unsurpassed for sheer horror…and for sheer bravery.
How does the Novus Quartet’s new recording – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the other fearless ensembles who’ve tackled it? They play this one in very high definition. For example, right from the first of the innumerable instances where the composer writes his own initials into the piece, the hazy overtones are front and center, especially from Wonhae Lee’s cello. Violinists Jaeyoung Kim and Young-Uk Kim slowly work a somber interchange alongside violist Kyuhyun Kim over elegaic cello drones as the first movement journeys to the grave.
The chase scene in the second movement, the KGB in frantic pursuit, has as much jagged menace as anyone could want, through fleeting references to some of the composer’s other works. Likewise, the sudden crescendos in the gleefully tiptoeing danse macabre of movement three are sharply executed. Movement four is the creepy scene where the death squad comes knocking, in this case done with a bit of restraint that underscores the sense of terror. At a time when big pharma, their puppets in government and law enforcement are waging war against majority populations who won’t take the kill shot, there’s never been a better time to take inspiration from Shostakovich’s insight into how fascists work.
The movement’s conclusion sets up the relentlessly drifting, especially lustrous mournfulness of the quartet’s last movement. The Emerson and Jerusalem Quartets have put out more distantly ominous, and arguably more suspenseful recordings, but this one is strong and needs to be heard as widely as possible, given the state of the world right now.
The Novus Quartet open the album with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, which he wrote in 1945, hot on the heels of his crushingly cynical Symphony No. 9. In view of that work’s less-than-triumphant response to Soviet victory in World War II, this comes across as more serious and straightforward – although Shostakovich’s unsurpassed sense of irony is everywhere.
The group tackle the first movement, a Bartokian, reharmonized folk dance, with a visceral starkness, the babushkas at the local market surveying the damage with an energy that’s more wary than weary. From there, the ensemble waste no time in developing a sense of foreboding in the briskly waltzing second movement. Is the tiptoeing, balletesque interlude that follows an evocation of hope and renewal, or a typical Shostakovich caricature of the face of evil? Considering the brisk, pouncing, driving rhythms, chase sequences and witchy coda of the third movement, it would seem the latter.
The quartet let the pall linger in the fourth movement: Kyuhyun Kim’s righteously indignant viola out in front of the solemnity packs a wallop. The group return to an emphatic rusticity in lieu of courtly grace in the final movement’s dance sequence. The war may be over, but the dynamics that fueled it are still there, the composer seems to remind us. These insightful performances deserve an encore from the rest of the Shostakovich catalog.