With this Tiny Desk Concert by the Grammy-winning Pacifica Quartet, we have the opportunity to explore the world of a single composer. With the arguable exception of Béla Bartók‘s six string quartets, it’s generally accepted that the 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich are the strongest body of quartets since Beethoven.
There’s no way around it — the Shostakovich quartets are intense, like page-turning thrillers, as they pull you into his world. They are dark and introspective, witty and sarcastic, and stained with the Soviet-era violence and hardship the composer lived through. He died in 1975.
Three movements from different Shostakovich quartets display the brilliance of the composer, the sheer power of the string quartet medium and the nuanced playing of this group, which has recorded all of the composer’s quartets.
Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960)
Eerie pizzicato and piercing stabs in the violins help color the twitchy, even sinister, opening movement of the Seventh Quartet. Stalin might have been dead since 1953, but hard-line Soviet politics (including the violent suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising) were still in place. The music’s lightness and transparency create a crepuscular feel.
Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73 (1946)
The Third Quartet’s first movement looks back to a slightly more pleasant time before World War II. At one point Shostakovich considered a subtitle: “Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm.” The jaunty opening theme, like Haydn after a few beers, is among the most lighthearted in the 15 quartets. But the mood sobers with an intense double fugue before returning to the opening music and a flashy final page.
Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960)
The Eighth Quartet is Shostakovich’s most popular — and one of his most hair-raising. He dedicated it to victims of fascism and war while at the same time creating his own epitaph. The entire quartet is built on a foundation of four notes that spell out his first initial and the first three letters of his last name. The second movement juxtaposes violent energy with a tweaked version of a Jewish folk theme from an earlier work.
- Shostakovich: Allegretto (from String Quartet No. 7)
- Shostakovich: Allegretto (from String Quartet No. 3)
- Shostakovich: Allegro molto (from String Quartet No. 8)
- Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins
- Masumi Per Rostad, viola
- Brandon Vamos, cello
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Tom Huizenga; Audio Engineer: Suraya Mohamed; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Olivia Merrion; photo by Olivia Merrion/NPR