New Currents

CD 16 of 24

The string quartet in its current guise harks back to Haydn, who set the instrumentation as two violins, one viola and a cello, the format still used to this day. Over the course of the nineteenth century substantial works were added to the quartet repertoire by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvořák and Brahms, and this continued into the twentieth,,  with three titans of that century continuing the tradition.

In his youth Serge Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) was known as the bad boy of Russian music, travelling the world performing his own works. In his compositions, Prokofiev did not abandon all the traits of the nineteenth century; instead, he blended them into a unique style. In his String Quartet No. 1 this blending is so seamless that his friend, the ballet dancer Serge Lifer said of the Andante, “Fabulous! Pure Mozart!”

Born in Hungary, Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) travelled his native land, as well as Romania, Turkey and North Africa, in search of folk music that he could assimilate into his compositions. Simultaneously he was creating a style he described as “an extension in range”. While not using a specific key signature in many of his works, his music does retain a basic tonality or tonal centre. (The complete break in tonality was being devised by Schoenberg whose music we will hear on CD 20) Bartok made full use of the modern techniques such as sul ponticello (moving the bow over the bridge of the instrument instead of over the sound hole, producing a nasal tone Track 4 – 1:20), glissandi (the sliding of the finger up or down a string Track 4 – 1:28) and pizzicato (the plucking of the strings).

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), wrote fifteen string quartets, the Eighth being the most famous.  Through the use of a motif, Shostakovich not only created unity in his quartet, he cleverly “signed” his signature into the work.  His motif is created by playing the notes D, E flat, C and B flat, which in German nomenclature comes out as D– Es – C– H, or D. SCH. The piece opens with this “signature” (Track 6 opening) and can he heard throughout the quartet.

In the early 1960s, Shostakovich was commissioned to write a score to accompany a film documenting the devastation of Dresden during World War II. During this time he was also being hounded by some minor Soviet functionaries to join the Communist Party, an act he had been able to fend off for years. Upon returning to the Soviet Union his daughter claims he said he had ``written a quartet dedicated to himself`, using the music intended for the film. A friend contends that Shostakovich meant this to be his final work, the thought of joining the party being too much for Shostakovich to bear, and he planned his suicide once the quartet was complete. Fortunately this plan was thwarted by the removal of his sleeping pills.

Officially, the quartet was dedicated “To the memory of the Victims of Fascism”. After the première Heinrich Neuhaus, the great Russian pianist proclaimed “It’s music of absolute genius! I was shaken and cried” - the exact same experience I had upon first hearing it.


Recommended Tracks

Recommended Tracks

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953):
String Quartet No.1 in B minor, Op.50 | 1. Allegro
Emerson String Quartet
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975):
String Quartet No.8 in C Minor, Op.110 | 1. Largo
Emerson String Quartet


(Please find our recommended audio excerpts for this CD on the bottom of the "Overview" page.)

      1. Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
        String Quartet No.1 in B minor, Op.50
        1. 1.
          1. Allegro
        2. 2.
          2. Andante molto vivace
        3. 3.
          3. Andante
      2. Béla Bartók (1881 - 1945)
        String Quartet No.3, Sz. 85
        1. 4.
          1. Prima parte (Moderato)
        2. 5.
          2. Seconda parte. Allegro - attacca: Ricapitulazione della prima parte. Moderato
        3. 6.
          3. Coda. Allegro molto
      3. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
        String Quartet No.8 in C Minor, Op.110
        1. 7.
          1. Largo
        2. 8.
          2. Allegro molto
        3. 9.
          3. Allegretto
        4. 10.
          4. Largo
        5. 11.
          5. Largo
          Emerson String Quartet
    Playing Time 00:56:41