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1940 found Dmitri Shostakovich teaching composition at the Leningrad Conservatory, with the Soviet Union on the cusp of war with Germany. He was enjoying regained favor from Russia’s critics and public after the success of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and First String Quartet. He wrote the latter in 1938 for the Glazunov Quartet in Leningrad (during a bout of personal interest in chamber music), and while working on it the Glazunov players proposed the idea of his writing a piano quintet – specifically so he could perform with them. “I’ll write a quintet immediately,” he said, “and I’ll definitely play it with you.”

Shostakovich finished his Quintet for Piano and Strings (in B minor) in September 1940, and the piece immediately met a warm reception. It won Shostakovich his first Stalin Prize, the highest decoration given at the time to the country’s most elite artists. He performed the piece around Leningrad and Moscow with different groups, and joked to a friend that he only wrote it so “the ‘Glazunovs’ and the ‘Beethovens’ won’t be able to do without me – and I’ll get a chance to see the world.”

The composer’s active role in the work as performer yielded little modifications that spanned decades. “We wanted to ‘sing,’ to play with more emotion,” recalled Glazunov cellist D.Y. Mogilevsky. “The emotional restraint of his playing led to a certain contradiction with the nature of strings. He demanded the minimum use of vibrato. The fast tempos excluded in themselves any possibility of emotional exaggeration.” A cellist in the Moscow Conservatory student quartet remembered: “In the Prelude, he asked us not to make a ritenuto, despite it being marked in the score. ‘But ritenuto is written here,’ we exclaimed. He came up to us very nervously, took out a pen and crossed out the marking in every part.”

– Tim Greiving