String Quartet No.2 in B flat Major, Op.19
Writing of his visit to Shostakovich, the Polish composer Krzystztof Meyer said that in Shostakovich’s study he found pictures of only three composers: Mahler, Mussorgsky and Shebalin. Not only Shostakovich but most of Shebalin’s contemporaries regarded him as being in the front rank of composers from their generation. Vissarion Shebalin (1902-63) was born in Omsk, Siberia where he began his musical studies. Later at the Moscow Conservatory, he studied under Myaskovsky. During the 1920’s he was attracted by modernism, but during the 1930’s he was drawn to traditionalism with its attachment to folkloric melodies. By 1942, he was appointed director of the Moscow Conservatory. When Stalin came to power, Shebalin was forced, as were all of the other major Soviet composers, to find some sort of modus vivendi with Socialist Realism. Although his music is well-known within Russia, it is virtually never heard outside of it. Chamber music always interested Shebalin and constitutes a sizeable part of his output. His nine string quartets span the length of his entire career from student right up until his death. They are an important body of work which deserves to be better known and to be performed.
String Quartet No.2 was completed in late 1934 and premiered by the famous Russian ensemble, the Beethoven String Quartet to whom it is dedicated. After its successful premiere in Moscow, it was for a brief period, it was performed outside of Russia and helped to establish the composer's reputation. Although it is a clearly tonal work, Shebalin was, at the time, clearly interested, as was Bartok, the use of polytonality. The theme to the opening introductory Largo becomes a kind of motto and his heard periodically throughout the work. It from time to time interrupts the development of the main section of the first movement, Allegro. the second movement consists of a broad Andantino followed by a quicker scherzo section. Next comes a warm and lyrical Andante cantabile. The finale is a thrusting, energetic Allegro risoluto.
Here is a quartet by one of Russia's lesser known but quite important 20th century composers which deserves to be heard in concert but is not beyond amateurs.