Borodin String Quartet   (source: YouTube)

In July 1964 Shostakovich stayed at the Dilizhan composer's retreat in Armenia. There he completed the String Quartet no. 10 in A flat, opus 118, which was then premièred, together with the ninth quartet, by the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow on the 20th of November that year. Of the two, the tenth quartet has the more immediate appeal and is simpler in its construction. The work has formally four movement marked:

  1. Andante,
  2. Allegretto furioso,
  3. Adagio, attacca
  4. Allegretto – Andante

and although the final two movements are merged it is otherwise traditional in structure. But the overall impression made on listening to the quartet is of emotional richness, imagery and variety.

Shostakovich dedicated this quartet of about 22 minutes to Mieczyslaw Vainberg (1919-1996), a prolific composer who, despite his 26 symphonies; seven concertos; 17 string quartets; 28 sonatas for various instruments; seven operas; several ballets; incidental music for 65 films; and many other works, including a Requiem; is still little known outside Russia. (Vainberg's twelfth symphony is, in turn, dedicated to Shostakovich.)

The quartet begins with a bugle-call from the first violin, the note A flat followed by an E minor triad. The movement then introduces many of the motifs and themes which will reappear, often heavily disguised, in the following movements.

The second movement is a fierce, furious and memorable scherzo, which displays outstanding vitality and dogged insistence. Written in E minor it commences with a series of strident, forceful and assertive chords. Nevertheless by time the second theme is introduced, about a minute later, the tempo has imperceptibly but decisively quickened. The combination of force and speed affects the listener like a pebbles on a stormy sea-shore: he is battered and thrown in all directions by an irresistible power. This is tense, exciting music; an outpouring of emotion, and the contrast between this movement, the Allegretto Furioso, and the next could not be more stunning for there now follows one of Shostakovich's sublime and heartbreaking passacaglias.

The nine bar passacaglia theme is introduced on the cello and then subjected to eight subtle variations. It has not the defiant characteristics of the famous passacaglia of the First Violin Concerto, but its graceful and calm melody remains embedded in the memory long after the quartet has terminated.

The passacaglia's finale leads directly into the final fourth movement which commences with a perky little theme. This trots and canters along until, after about a minute a second, a more expansive and lugubrious motif appears on the violins. The perky theme again returns for about thirty seconds until a third theme is introduced. Then all are mixed together into an effervescent cocktail which first bubbles, then pulsates and finally becomes agitated and volatile. Suddenly and unexpectedly the passacaglia's theme reappears, beautifully integrated above the seething undercurrents. The effect is dramatic and the underlying rhythm, seduced by the passacaglia's tranquillity, diminishes. Finally the perky tune, now devoid of some of its tempo, is repeated followed by the more spacious second theme. Then one last surprise occurs before the music terminates into a whisper: the themes of the first movement are recalled and the bugle-call, with which the quartet commenced, echoes over the dying music.