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Some of Shostakovich's early quartets contain rigorous sonata-form movements that conform in many ways to movements of Haydn and Beethoven quartets. Not so the Fourth. From its opening quasi-Asian sonorities, the quartet treats the listener to a series of episodes with relatively little traditional thematic development. In this sense, this quartet might more appropriately be called a suite. There are, however, two clear and contrasting themes in the Allegretto first movement that are treated to playful variations.

The second movement, Andantino, begins in the strings' darkest register, with an elegiac theme in triple time. The use of mutes gives a misterioso color to the Allegretto third movement, also revealing a kind of subtle Eastern character in the presentation of a theme played in three octaves. A repeating rhythmic figure, played almost monotonously on a single pitch, that in some other Shostakovich work might have been assigned to a side drum, persists through the movement. Without pause, boisterous pizzicatos usher in the last movement, another Allegretto, whose main theme, though of clearly Jewish feeling, is an original one. The theme is subjected to much richer development than in previous movements, including fugal imitation and metric displacement.

Though written in 1949, the Fourth Quartet was not performed publicly until 1953, following the death of Stalin. The String Quartet No. 4 was premiered by Moscow's Beethoven Quartet and is dedicated to Shostakovich's friend, artist and designer Pyotr Williams.

-- Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is an Emmy-nominated composer and has served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.