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In 1960, when he composed his Seventh and Eighth String Quartets, Shostakovich should have been enjoying the artistic fruits of the post-Stalin thaw. But his personal life was a shambles, and those Quartets marked an intensification in the composer's development of sardonic introversion as a sustaining force. His first wife, Nina Varzar, had died unexpectedly in December 1954, followed by his mother less than a year later. He married a Communist Youth League worker in 1956 and was divorced three years later. He proposed to his former pupil, composer Galina Ustvolskaya, twice and was rejected twice. Shostakovich also met Irina Antonovna Supinskaya, a young editor, in the fateful year 1960. After she had obtained a divorce, he married her in November 1962. This was to prove a happy, sustaining relationship for the composer, and in 1964 he dedicated his Ninth String Quartet to her.

Not surprisingly, then, this is generally a lighter, less complicated piece than its immediate predecessor, though it too has deep, dark currents - Shostakovich was again at odds with the Soviet authorities over his Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar," and its Yevtushenko poems. Like the Eighth, the Ninth Quartet is in five continuous movements with many musical interconnections.

The Moderato con moto begins with a humor rare in Shostakovich, more whimsical than biting, and it even manages a degree of philosophical serenity. A jaunty, slightly menacing tune swaggers into the middle of the movement, but the general sense of calm extends into the following Adagio, which is basically a solemn chorale.

The middle movement, an Allegretto scherzo, introduces a characteristic edge to the humor, sounding like a maniacal lone ranger galloping backwards to nowhere. Another Adagio ensues, this one strange and morbid, with stabbing pizzicato chords letting almost all the air out of the movement midway.

The finale picks up many thematic and gestural cues from the previous movements. More than twice the length of any of the other movements, it opens with a kinetic rush of energy. A folk dance interlude dwindles away, then charges back with a rhythmic zest that becomes just hammered chords. A little cello recitative is punctuated with a recurrence of those pizzicato chords, with the same deflating effect. It rebuilds its strength after that toward a more positive ending.

- John Henken