Tittle: Two Quartets, Two Recordings

As I opened up a blank template for this post, I was faced with the greyed-out word Title, where one is expected to put in the title for the post.  As I tried to figure out a good title, I jokingly thought for a moment, “I could call it Tittle!”

Waitaminit.  That’s good.

  1. a tiny amount or part of something.
    “the rules have not been altered one jot or tittle since”
      a small written or printed stroke or dot, indicating omitted letters in a word.

A tittle is the dot on the letter i, but it’s also seen in medieval manuscripts as an abbreviation in its own right–interestingly enough, for a letter that should be omitted. In a blog christened Scilicet, whose logo is the medieval abbreviation of the word scilicet (that’s the “scil” with the line through the “l” you see in the header), tittle is an appropriate word for “something that is a tiny part of a larger whole.”  Once again, the universe drops something obvious into my lap.

Tittle, going forward, will designate a shorter post regarding one of the larger topics that fascinate me.


All this because I wanted to do a quickie comparison between two recordings.  Before I do that, here is the “larger thing.”  The photos below are the result of something that, this time last year, was still perhaps a month away from flaming into existence.

The two books on the far right (if you don’t count the Rush R40 case) were both purchased at the same time, the result of a years-old interest in Russia.  The book Stalin’s Daughter, in the middle, predated these by a few months. Of the two, the one on the left resulted in the purchase of every single other book you see there (other than the aforementioned Stalin’s Daughter. (I still haven’t finished the one on the right.)
And it also resulted in this pile of CDs.

All of this is by way of explaining why I have two different recordings of the complete set of 15 quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich.  I also now own four different recordings of the 8th symphony, three of the 10th, 7th, and 5th, and two of the 4th.  This is a beguiling rabbit hole to go down, and one I’ve not been as familiar with.  When you buy a Rush album, there really isn’t another version of that album, other than perhaps live performances or remasters.  It’s still going to be Rush, playing songs by Rush.

But when you compare two recordings of the same classical work, you will discover that it’s not that way at all.  There is no definitive way of performing any particular piece. Sure, composers will include indications of tempo, volume, other indications of expression such as staccato or legato, and sometimes metronome markings.  Beyond this, the interpretation falls to the performers (and, in an orchestra, to the conductor).  And they can be hugely, hugely different.  That’s not even taking into account other variables, such as whether the piece was recorded live or in a studio (and what the accoustics of the hall are studio are like), the evolution of recording engineering over the years, and even the constraints of your listening technology.

When I first started to put together that stack of CDs, my initial impulse was to buy some of the complete sets, which were considerably cheaper than buying each symphony or quartet individually.  So I researched as to which, overall, were the best bang for the buck, which is how I ended up with the Barshai for the symphonies and the Fitzwilliam for the quartets.  That worked well as an introduction. But for the symphonies, I also started to want to hear how others had approached the works.  I read reviews, and as a result purchasedth Mravinsky recording of the 8th symphony, the Bernstein 7th, and the von Karajan 10th.  I had started looking around for the “best” 4th and not finding a lot of agreement–and then the recording you see on the top left, Andris Nelsons’ recording with the Boston Symphony of the 4th and the 11th, got nominated for a Grammy award.  And then I learned that the previous two releases in the series–first of the 10th symphony, and then of the 5th, 8th, and 9th symphonies–had won their respective Grammys.  Well. There was an endorsement.  And the expansion of horizons has paid off in being better able to understand, appreciate, and love each work.

This is all a prelude to the “tittle” of this post, which is that yesterday I had some unexpected free time and was able to finally listen to the Emerson Quartet’s versions of two of my favourite Shostakovich quartets, the 8th and the 13th, and to compare them with the Fitzwillam Quartet performances.  The Emerson Quartet recordings were recorded live and, as Wendy Lesser puts it, “manage to simultaneously be intense and restrained.”  Those two words are key.  On initial hearing, I prefer the Fitzwilliam’s recording of the 8th and the Emerson’s recording of the 13th.  The Fitzwilliam’s 8th seems to work better as a cohesive narrative, particularly in the 4th movement, and particularly in its use of silence.  The 13th, in contrast, is a deeply weird work (in all the best ways)–it howls and screeches and forces the musicians to literally attack their instruments. In contrast to the relatively performance by the Fitzwilliam, the Emerson’s performance is raw and gritty–you can hear the performers reaching for difficult chords (almost undiscernable harmonics creep in), as if they are trying to reel them in.  The result is that the listener is better engaged.

In the upcoming months I’ll be hearing four different Shostakovich symphonies, both piano concertos, and the Second Cello Concerto.  I greatly look forward to what live performance will bring to each of these works.