Here's an entirely new, distinctive performance tradition in Shostakovich's quartets. The Hagen's approach is pristine, with a wonderful transparency to the textures and a real bounce to the dance-inspired movements. There's no lack of emotional depth, but some of the grime of accumulated habits has been cleaned off and the works emerge shining anew . . .
BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. January 2007
A splendid if close recording leaves you with no place to hide in Shostakovich¿s third, seventh and eighth string quartets ¿ all in differing ways racked with pain and nostalgia . . . this is music clean and unadorned. The fury in parts of the seventh is incredible, and the ghosts of Shostakovich¿s past in the eighth haunt the ear as never before. One of the best Shostakovich discs this year.
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The Times (London) / 26. May 2006
The selection of works on this outstandingly engineered CD is a good one . . . stylistically there¿s enough contrast to give the listener an idea of the composer¿s breadth and to stave off tedium or oppressiveness . . . It¿s a must for those who love Shostakovich.
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International Record Review (London) / 01. June 2006
As with their earlier disc of Shostakovich quartets, the Hagen Quartet take nothing for granted in this repertory. Every movement seems to have been put under the interpretative microscope, bringing very different emotional and textural perspectives to these works than some of the approaches that are familiar, particularly from Russian chamber groups . . . There are many . . . striking details . . . this warmly engineered release offers a highly stimulating and provocative alternative.
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BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. July 2006
The Hagen Quartet take nothing for granted -- every movement seems to have been put under the interpretative microscope.
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BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. January 2012
. . . [man] sollte . . . nicht vergessen, dass er [Shostakovich] in anderen Genres ähnlich produktiv war: etwa auf dem Gebiet der Filmmusik (daran erinnert jetzt unter anderem eine von Thomas Sanderling geleitete, hörenswerte Aufnahme der Musik zum satirischen avantgardistischen Zeichentrickfilm "Das Märchen vom Popen und seinem Knecht Balda" aus den Jahren 1933/34) . . . Einen nochmals anderen Zugang hat schliesslich das Hagen-Quartett gefunden, das in seiner neuen Einspielung der Quartette Nr. 3, 7 und 8 die Tempokontraste und die dynamischen und artikulatorischen Gegensätze in einer bisher nie gehörten Art und Weise schärft und trotzdem die Kantabilität der Musik nicht zu kurz kommen lässt. Mit dieser faszinierenden, hochvirtuosen Interpretation ist dem Salzburger Ensemble eine Referenzeinspielung gelungen, die ein würdiges Pendant zu Mariss Jansons' Gesamtaufnahme der Sinfonien bildet und auf eine Fortsetzung hoffen lässt. Den Grundstein zu einer Schostakowitsch-"Totale" hat das Hagen-Quartett ja schon vor zehn Jahren mit einer ähnlich überzeugenden Einspielung der Quartette Nr. 4, 11 und 14 gelegt.
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Neue Zürcher Zeitung / 25. September 2006
Extreme darzustellen, scheint dem Hagen Quartett ein spielerisches Vergnügen zu sein. Dabei kommt die Spielkultur des Ensembles einer solchen Struktur noch entgegen: Die ans Kühle grenzende, noble Klanggebung als Basis lässt viel Raum für effektvolle Ausbrüche. Im achten Quartett steht dieses Verhältnis in umgekehrter Weise: Der Ausdruck hat sich seinen Platz erobert und allfällige Klassizismen verbannt. Der choralartige, strenge Beginn mit dem Schostakowitsch-Motiv (D-Es-C-H) ist schon Sonne und Nacht zugleich, eine wahrhaft schmerzliche Spannung tut sich da kund. Der Ausbruch folgt zwingend im Allegro: wild, energetisch und bis ins Geräusch reichend. Es ist beeindruckend, wie das Hagen'sche Familienunternehmen und sein Mitstreiter an der zweiten Violine hier des Komponisten unangenehm depressives Temperament und seine Musik gewordene Prägung durch ein mörderisches Staatssystem hörbar machen: deutlich, ohne Überidentifizierung.
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Musik & Theater (Zurich) / 01. October 2006
Les Hagen disposent d'instruments aux timbres aussi riches qu'habilement utilisés, et font table rase des préoccupations politiques qu'on prête au compositeur en ces diverses "confessions" . . . Les Hagen . . . séduisent par la beauté plastique de leurs cordes graves dans les deux largos finaux.
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Diapason (Paris) / 01. September 2006
Shostakovich: string quartets nos. 3, 7, 8
The years between Shostakovich's Third and Eighth Quartets saw massive upheavals both in Soviet society and in the composer's own life. He wrote his Third Quartet soon after the end of the war in 1946, when his standing was exceptionally high both at home and internationally. By the time he completed the Eighth Quartet in 1960, he had undergone the public humiliation of Zhdanov's notorious 1948 decree, accusing him (as well as such other leading figures as Prokofiev and Khachaturian) of "formalist" and decadent tendencies; he had seen Khrushchev's reforms begin dismantling Stalin's brutal legacy; and he had even agreed to join the Communist Party. Paradoxically, it is the Third Quartet, written while Stalin was still alive, that, at least initially, sounds the most relaxed of these three works, while the two later quartets poignantly register the traumas of personal loss and self-betrayal.
Of all the connections between the Third Quartet (1946) and other contemporary wartime (or immediately postwar) works, perhaps the strongest are the Jewish inflections it shares with the Second Piano Trio and Second Quartet. As late as 1948, with his Songs from Jewish Folk Poetry, Shostakovich was still exploring what for him had been a particularly rich musical legacy; the simple dance styles and modal scales of Jewish folk music were, in a sense, a natural extension of his own musical language. But the Quartet also shares both the grief and violence of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and after the cheery first movement, darker connections with these war-haunted works loom large. The second and third movements trace a path from a grotesquely clumsy waltz to a perversely leaden scherzo, shackled by its shifting duple/triple metre and veering hysterically into what one commentator has aptly described as "running on the spot" music. As this movement progresses, its roots in the dances and mode of Jewish folk music become more obvious, and at the same time frantically intensified. After a grieving Adagio, Jewish inflections return in the weirdly twisted dance of the finale to end in a ghostly, ambivalently serene F major.
The decade leading up to the Seventh and Eighth Quartets remains one of the most unexplored in Shostakovich's life. Certainly, the 1950s was a changeable decade for the composer, marked equally by success and tragedy. After the low point of 1948-49, he won back his official status, initially with typically socialist realist works like the cantatas The Song of the Forests (1949) and The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland (1952). But after Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich went on to write further works on revolutionary or "popular" themes, among the finest of which are his ten a capella choruses, his Russian folksong settings and the Eleventh Symphony, "The Year 1905". These new forays into political territory confused many of his friends and colleagues, and Shostakovich himself began to fear that he was "drying up". With hindsight, it seems that all Shostakovich's music from this period, extending as far as the Twelfth Symphony of 1961, was part of a search for a new creative voice in a radically changed political climate. It was also at this time that he also began to focus increasingly on the string quartet, composing another five by 1960, among which the beautiful Sixth Quartet (1956) stands out as one of Shostakovich's finest works of the 1950s.
The Seventh Quartet decisively marks the end of this period and the beginning of Shostakovich's sombre late style. Although superficially Shostakovich's life was more stable than it had been for a long time, an unsuccessful second marriage following his wife Nina's death in 1954 had left him isolated, and both the Seventh and Eighth Quartets are marked by a deep sense of loneliness. And as he increasingly became an "official" figure (he was to become the first secretary of the newly formed Russian Federation Composers' Union in 1960), Shostakovich became alienated from the younger generation of composers disappointed by his apparent decline into the role of a semi-official composer in the 1950s. Dedicated to Nina's memory, the quartet moves from a restless, anxious first movement to an unearthly, spectral Lento, with the post-cataclysmic atmosphere familiar from the Seventh and, especially, Eighth symphonies. Its concluding fugato has the biting fury of the Tenth Symphony's scherzo, but moves unexpectedly to a lilting Allegretto waltz before ending in a gentle F sharp major - the key of the love music in his opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, also dedicated to Nina. If this quartet is a memorial work, then it covers the whole spectrum of emotions associated with loss: emptiness, loneliness, rage, fear and tender reminiscence.
Although the Seventh and Eighth Quartets are separated by only four months, Shostakovich's personal circumstances underwent a radical transformation during that time. By June he was on the verge of a breakdown, brought about by machinations to force him to join the Communist Party that he felt unable to withstand. His research trip to Dresden, where he famously wrote the Eighth Quartet in just three days, took place between agreeing to join the Party and his formal initiation. To his friend Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich wrote that the new quartet was a requiem to himself, alluding freely to earlier works and using his own musical signature, DSCH (D, E flat, C, B natural) as one of its most fundamental building-blocks. Though the quartet retained its original dedication to "the victims of fascism and war", it was, according to Shostakovich, a work very definitely about himself: "I reflected that if I die some day then it's hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself."
Among the many references to other works in this quartet, the most prominent include an impassioned quotation from the "Jewish" finale of the Second Piano Trio in the second movement, the jovial opening bars of the First Cello Concerto in the third movement, the violin's hushed intoning of the revolutionary song "Tormented by Grievous Oppression" in the fourth movement and the high cello's imploring response with Katerina's doomed plea to Sergei from the final act of Lady Macbeth. Framing these quotation-loaded inner movements are two brief, elegaic outer movements constructed from the DSCH motif, fitting together to create one of Shostakovich's most personal, and most poignant, works.