Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2004 and the recording is still available.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944)
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
Borodin Quartet
rec. 1995, Teldec Studio, Berlin, Germany
Warner Elatus 2564 60813-2 [63]

Shostakovich, much like Johannes Brahms, was amazingly capable of condensing the power of a symphony orchestra, and of expressing an equal power and emotional scope through the medium of a chamber ensemble. Such is the case with these two early-ish works, ably presented by Elisabeth Leonskaja and the Borodin String Quartet.

After the success of his first string quartet in 1938, the members of the Beethoven Quartet immediately called upon Shostakovich to compose another work for them. The result was the G minor quintet, which the composer and the Beethovens premiered in 1940. The work was a major critical success and was awarded the first ever Stalin Prize.

Highly traditional in its structure, the work is as much a suite of ancient forms as it is harmonically original and innovative. Shostakovich never ceases to amaze listeners with his uncanny perception of timbre, and the ways in which he can exploit the tonal capabilities of the instruments for which he writes. This is never more evident than in the ghostly Fugue, which calls for a lengthy passage with the strings muted.

Likewise, in the later Trio, Op. 67, the composer makes use of interesting effects when he requires that the cello play the entire opening song in the first movement, using harmonics and thus making it the treble instrument and the violin the bass. Shostakovich exorcised quite a few demons in the writing of this piece, having seen the terror of the Second World War and the havoc it wreaked in his homeland, and having lost two of the major figures in his life to an early death. This is also the work that would see the composer utilizing Jewish folk melodies as his source of inspiration, a habit that would last through several more compositions, until the official Stalinist anti-Semitism would make it physically unsafe for him to continue the practice.

These are remarkably well-executed performances, with all of the Russian gusto that you might expect from such a group of musicians. Of particular merit is the special attention paid to colors and shadings of tone by both pianist and string players. Every detail of the score has been thoroughly thought through and the give and take between the members is outstanding.

Production values are somewhat haphazard. Sound quality is what one would expect from a company of Teldec’s reputation: superb. However some important corners were cut in this lower-price reissue, the most egregious of which is the complete absence of the names of the members of the Borodin Quartet. Program notes are informative and concise, always a plus. A highly recommendable performance of two of the last century’s major chamber works.

Kevin Sutton

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