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Sinfonia for Viola and Strings arranged by Alexander Tchaikovsky from the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor, Op. 138

Rudolf Barshai, the founder and longtime conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, made similar “Chamber Symphony” arrangements of Shostakovich’s Fourth and Tenth String Quartets, but it was another Russian musician whose efforts provided a valuable addition to the solo viola repertoire. The String Quartet No. 13 (written in 1970) was dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky (Yuri Bashmet’s first teacher at the Moscow Conservatory), the founding violist of the Beethoven String Quartet. It was that ensemble which had introduced many of Shostakovich’s string quartets, and he dedicated the Quartets Nos. 11-14, in turn, to each of those four musicians.

Shostakovich, although still in full command of his composing powers, was not in good health during his last years, and the specter of death seemed to occupy his thinking, and therefore, his music. The viola, with its dark and melancholy richness of tone, was to be the protagonist in his very last work, the Viola Sonata of 1975, and it plays a similar role in the Quartet No. 13. When the Quartet was first performed, in December 1970 in Leningrad, Feodor Druzhinin, who had replaced Borisovsky in the Beethoven Quartet, was the violist.

In his notes accompanying the Eder Quartet’s complete Shostakovich String Quartet cycle (Naxos), Keith Anderson outlines the Quartet No. 13: “The viola starts the quartet with a twelve-note theme, in which the descending interval of a semitone has an importance soon to be reflected in the use of the same interval in dissonant harmonic conjunction. The first violin takes up the theme, leading to a passage of increased intensity. It is from the opening that the single movement develops. Before long a scherzo-like passage appears, marked by percussive interjections as the bow is used to strike the belly of the instrument. The music slows to a passage of sustained intensity and then of hushed trills, above which the plucked notes of the first violin are heard. Strident chords of a minor ninth then allow the viola to restate the first theme, now a semitone higher, followed, as before, by the other instruments. There is a short passage of cello double-stopping and material developed from the main theme, with the cello continuing, accompanied by the viola in somber duet. In the final passage it is the viola that reaches upwards, providing a last stratospheric B-flat in a crescendo in which the violins join in conclusion.”

Dennis Bade is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Director of Publications.