Shostakovich's 15 harrowing, confessional and bleakly beautiful string quartets can be heard as a musical memoir of terrifying times. During the composer's lifetime in the Soviet Union, the music's power lay in its combination of wordless ambiguity — how could mere notes be subversive? — and fierce precision. In the 1970s, the Moscow-based Borodin Quartet captured that urgency in an intense, somewhat lo-fi recording of the first 13 quartets. By 1990, everything had changed: the composer was dead, Soviet Communism was about to be, the Borodin's personnel had turned over (though cellist Valentin Berlinsky still connected the group to its past), recording technology had gone digital, and the quartets had transcended the circumstances of their birth.
This recording of five quartets blazes a path into the new era. Less desperate and more searching than its predecessor, it lingers with tenderness on passages like the slow second movement of the Seventh Quartet, softening the haunted, distant whistling into a poignant meditation. For once, sound quality has a musical importance, taking the music out of the era of black-and-white newsreels and giving it new vividness and moral force, though with most of the muscularity of the old Borodin Quartet.