Having written his Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Quartets in honour of, respectively, the first and second violinists and the violist of the Beethoven Quartet, in his Fourteenth Shostakovich turned to pay homage to the cellist of the Beethovens, Sergei Shirinsky. As with the previous three quartets, the composer here makes a special feature of the particular instrument of the dedicatee. After repeated notes in the viola, the opening allegretto gets underway with a dancing solo for the cello, half-klezmer, half-melancholy nursery rhyme. From the false innocence and catchy rhythms of this scrappy little melody the whole movement unfolds, with many unpredictable twists and turns initiated as in the opening bars by the cello.
The eloquent central slow movement of the Fourteenth begins with a long and plangent solo for the first violin. The cellist then seizes this same music and makes something new and different out of it. Here too Shostakovich seems to be thinking of Shirinsky’s special role in the Beethoven Quartet. The central section of this slow movement continues with another prominent cello tune, a serenade-like melody accompanied by the plucking of the three upper stringed instruments, as though Shirinsky were being partnered by a mandolin.
The final movement begins with another tribute to Shirinsky of a different kind. The stuttering opening violin theme spells out the notes E flat, E, D, E, G, A, which in a mixture of French and German notation, spliced with some imaginative Russian letters, gives Es E Re E Zh A which spells Serezha, the friendly form of Sergei, Shirinsky’s first name. Another lively dance movement reveals itself, using the ‘Serezha’ motif as the source of a whole variety of both tunes and accompaniments. Suddenly and unexpectedly the dancing motion collapses, the music becomes quiet and still and we hear deep in the cello part a quotation from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It is the moment from the last act when the heroine Katerina appeals to her lover Sergei to return to her: ‘Serezha! Oh my sweet one!’ In the coda that follows, Shostakovich revisits the dance music and other ideas from earlier in the quartet but now dissolves them into painful sweetness and nostalgia. There can be few of this composer’s finales which express quite so much longing and yet so understated sentiment as in this magnificent ending with its final long high solo, once again on Shirinsky’s cello.
Note by Gerard McBurney