SHOSTAKOVICH: 2 Pieces for Octet.* 2 Pieces for Quartet. Piano Quintet in G min.+ String Quartet No. 8 / Medici String Quartet; *Alberni String Quartet; +John Bingham, pno / Nimbus NI7109
This is a reissue of 1986-88 recordings by the Medici Quartet, considered a first-rank unit in England between their founding in 1971 and the serious illness and retirement of one of their founding members in 2007. The first thing that strikes your ears at the beginning of the early (Op. 11) string octet is the strong emotion of their playing; the second thing is their use of rich string vibrato, nowadays considered to be virtually verboten in the classical music world regardless of the period of music you’re playing.
I was struck also by the much more Russian formality of this work, Despite some harmonic touches that would make you think of later Shostakovich, you’d scarcely recognize the composer from this piece—until you reach the second movement, the opening of which has Shostakovich’s fingerprints all over it. The combined Medici and Alberni Quartets play it with tremendous energy as well as precision.
The two pieces for string quartet happen to be the Elegy from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the well-known Polka from his ballet The Golden Age. Both are played well, the latter with a nice, sprightly sense of humor.
In the Piano Quintet, the Medici strings are joined by pianist John Bingham, a pleasant player but not one who will grab your attention as much as Medici’s playing. They’re on two different wavelengths, which is unfortunate. It’s a good performance but, because of Bingham, not a great one. Yet they do play the slow second movement together very well, Bingham being led by the string quartet into giving a bit of feeling to his playing, and I loved the way the quartet laid into the syncopated figures in the third.
Medici’s performance of the eighth string quartet is simply wonderful: deeply felt without incurring bathos and beautifully phrased. It makes you wonder what a complete cycle by this group would have sounded like. The second movement has a blistering intensity matched by few others, and the “Allegretto” scampers along with great felicity.
So there you have it. A mostly very fine collection of performances, but unless you’re a Medici Quartet collector, not a really vital disc.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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