Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Dmitri Shostakovich, Complete String Quartets

Question: is it true that only by working directly with a composer can an ensemble deliver a “definitive” performance?

Answer: no.

Composer supervision guarantees nothing. Beethoven, for one, oversaw the premieres of every one of his nine symphonies (though the deaf Beethoven’s “oversight” of his Ninth Symphony in 1824 was much more a hindrance than a help). His supervision notwithstanding, we can be assured that he never heard a single one of his symphonies played with the sort of precision and expressive sympathy we routinely hear today. Generally but accurately speaking, modern professional orchestral players – like modern athletes – are simply better than their early nineteenth century counterparts, and they have the advantage of having played Beethoven’s symphonies since they were children. Consequently, we would hazard to say that in his lifetime, Beethoven never heard anything close to a “definitive performance” of any one of his symphonies

Ignaz Schuppanzigh
Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830), first violinist and leader of the Razumovsky String Quartet

However, when it comes to chamber music, particularly string quartets, the presence of a composer will consistently make a difference – often a huge difference – in a performance. A chamber group has many fewer working parts than an orchestra, allowing specific issues to be addressed directly and more easily. And a string quartet – particularly a standing string quartet, in which its members know each other like their proverbial left hands – well, such a group is as responsive to coaching from a composer as a formula one race car is to its driver.

(Talk about not having a recording device when we needed one! How we would love to hear the Razumovsky String Quartet, headed up by Beethoven’s pal, “Me Lord Falstaff” – Ignaz Schuppanzigh – perform Beethoven’s Op. 59 string quartets, which he composed for the group and then coached their performances. Talk about “definitive performances”!)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets stand as one of the most significant set of string quartets composed during the twentieth century.

In his lifetime, Shostakovich was intimately associated with two standing string quartets: the Beethoven Quartet and the Borodin Quartet, each of which recorded complete sets of Shostakovich’s string quartets. …

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