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The Fifth Quartet is equal in emotional contrast and sophistication of form to any of Shostakovich's works. The first movement is a weighty sonata-allegro form with distinctive themes and an extensive development section. The forceful opening theme gives way to more tranquil transitional material leading to a waltz-like second theme. A competing duple rhythm is introduced, after which pizzicatos tranquilize the energy.

A high sustained F in the violin makes a bridge to the second movement, Andante, which contains, by contrast, music of serene and steady pulses. The first theme is in the style of a Russian song, while the second has a Romantic character akin to Smetana or Dvorák, but with Shostakovich's unmistakable wandering chromatic tendencies. The return of the opening theme occurs, as in the third movement of the Fourth Quartet, as a single melody heard in three octaves.

As in the previous movement transition, a single sustained pitch takes us into the Moderato. Staying in the tranquil vein, the second violin presents transitional material for what will emerge as an allegretto theme in triple time, but whose accents throw off its phrasing. The violins lead the way thematically through most of this finale into the original transitional material, slightly modified in the cello, and a relaxed conclusion in the home key of B-flat major.

The Fifth String Quartet was premiered in Moscow in November 1953.

-- Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is an Emmy-nominated composer and has served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.