Feature Review – Emerson Quartet/Shostakovich in New York

Written by: David M. Rice


String Quartets:

No.1 in C, Op.49 [1938]

No.2 in A, Op.68 [1944]

No.3 in F, Op.73 [1946]

No.4 in D, Op.83 [1949]

No.5 in B flat, Op.92 [1952]

No.6 in G, Op.101 [1956]

No.7 in F sharp minor, Op.108 [1960]

No.8 in C minor Op.110 [1960]

No.9 in E flat, Op.117 [1964]

No.10 in A flat, Op.118 [1964]

No.11 in F minor, Op.122 [1966]

No.12 in D flat, Op.133 [1968]

No.13 in B flat minor, Op.138 [1970]

No.14 in F sharp, Op.142 [1973]

No.15 in E flat minor, Op.144 [1974]

Emerson Quartet

[Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola) & David Finckel (cello)]

Performed at Alice Tully Hall, New York City, on Thursday 27 April 2006 [Quartets 1, 2 & 3], Sunday 30 April [4, 6 & 5], Thursday 4 May [7, 9 & 8], Thursday 11 May [10, 11 & 12] and Sunday 14 May [13, 14 & 15]

As the last strains of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth String Quartet died away, an appreciative audience – many of whom had attended all five concerts in the Emerson String Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle – rose to give the musicians a warm, extended and well-deserved ovation. Yet I found that the moment did not produce the sense of satisfaction and fulfilment that one hopes for at the end of such a long and intensive traversal of a major body of a great composer’s work. The reason for my reaction was not immediately clear, however. After all, the Shostakovich quartets are masterpieces, and they were performed brilliantly by artists whose individual virtuosity and ensemble playing were outstanding throughout the two-and-a-half-week-long cycle (a leisurely pace compared to their performance in London in a single week in early March of this year). I ultimately concluded that the whole of the cycle had proved to be less than the sum of its parts, and that the fault lay in the concept of the cycle project itself.

There is a certain, largely intellectual, benefit in being able to study and compare all of the quartets in close proximity to one other, and the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth is a natural time to do so. Moreover, without an occasional cycle it would take many years for most listeners to have the opportunity to hear all of the quartets in live performance, and some might be performed rarely, if ever. However, these works are not mere objects of academic and intellectual analysis and study, but rather, like all great works of art, are meant to inspire, move and entertain us. They should not be relegated to being performed primarily in Shostakovich cycles – a phenomenon that antedates the present centenary year – while being denied their rightful place in the mainstream of the standard string quartet repertory.

Although comprised of individual masterpieces, this body of work lacks the characteristics necessary for an intensive chronological survey to translate into fully satisfying experiences in the concert hall. The Shostakovich quartets, though composed over a span of some thirty years, did not develop or transform the string quartet medium in a way that has profoundly influenced subsequent composers, nor do they vary as widely stylistically as, say, Beethoven’s string quartets. This makes the latter much better suited to being assembled into interesting and entertaining concert programmes when performed as a cycle. A Beethoven string quartet cycle not only aids our appreciation of his influence on subsequent compositions in that form, but also can be expanded to include such later works. (Indeed, just a few days after concluding its New York Shostakovich cycle, the Emerson String Quartet included his twelfth quartet (and Webern’s Five Movements, Opus 5) with the third of Beethoven’s Opus 18 cycle and his ‘Serioso’ Quartet, Opus 95, as the first of two programmes in Los Angeles billed as “Emerson Quartet Plays Beethoven”.)

Notwithstanding these reservations, the Emerson String Quartet is certainly a masterful interpreter of the Shostakovich quartets, having performed the cycle previously in New York, twice in London, and also in Germany and Italy. Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternated between the first and second violin parts, and violist Lawrence Dutton performed standing, with cellist David Finckel seated on a raised platform. They played with great technical virtuosity and maintained a careful balance as each instrument moved from background to foreground and as the emotional content of the music shifted from one mood to another. There was much to appreciate and enjoy in each of the five concerts.

A highlight of the early portion of the cycle was the Second Quartet, with its folk-like opening ‘Overture’, instrumental ‘Recitatives’ surrounding a lyrical ‘Romance’, a dark ‘Waltz’, and a concluding ‘Theme and Variations’. The Emerson’s playing of Shostakovich’s brilliant variations was particularly dazzling as the tempo kept speeding up as variation succeeded variation, with virtually every aspect of the theme – melody, tonality, timbre, rhythm and tempo – all undergoing inventive changes. When Shostakovich composed this quartet he was 38 and had already produced his first five symphonies. It is much longer and weightier than his first quartet, written six years earlier, and even that earlier piece reflects the work of an already mature composer. Other noteworthy moments from the first concert included the fugal passages in the first movement of the Third Quartet and that work’s fourth movement passacaglia, with Dutton’s viola and Finckel’s cello standing out.

In the second concert, highlights included Dutton’s solo at the beginning of the final movement of the Fourth Quartet and the Klezmer-influenced music that ensued, ultimately feeling not so much like dancing as trying to dance but somehow being held back. The genial Sixth Quartet followed, with each of its movements ending with the same restful cadence – a sharp contrast from the Fourth Quartet, in which movements ended without harmonic resolution. In some other respects, however, these two quartets shared characteristic rhythmic and thematic elements. After the interval, the much weightier and introspective Fifth Quartet was given a gripping performance. Its three movements are played without pause, the first two linked by Philip Setzer’s sustained high F on the first violin, with a sustained chord followed by a viola solo connecting the second and third movements. The quartet ended quietly as a plaintive passage in the cello gave way to the first violin and then, finally, to the viola, which played a slowed-down version of the first phrase of the theme with which it began the movement.

The third concert brought the cycle to a higher emotional plane, beginning with the short but intense Seventh Quartet, written in 1960 in memory of Shostakovich’s first wife. The Emerson Quartet’s playing of the frenzied fugue in the third movement was utterly breathtaking.

The Ninth Quartet, which rounded out the first half of the programme, is something of a stylistic throwback to the Third through Fifth Quartets of more than a decade earlier, while the Seventh and Eighth Quartets are more anticipatory of Shostakovich’s later works in this genre. The emotional stakes were raised higher still in the Eighth Quartet, which the composer declared to be autobiographical and which not only is largely based on the motif ‘DSCH’ (D, E flat, C, B, in German notation) derived from his name but also includes quotations from the composer’s other works. The Eighth Quartet was composed during a visit to Dresden in 1960 and was dedicated to the victims of war and fascism. The violence of war is vividly depicted in the Allegro molto second movement, and the fourth movement Largo is repeatedly interrupted by three shocking chords which may depict the bombing of Dresden, or perhaps are meant to evoke the terror of life in a repressive state, whether representing a signal warning of a visit from the secret police or the dreaded knock on the door when they arrive.

The fourth concert proved somewhat less interesting than the third, but it was not without excellent music-making. The Tenth and Eleventh Quartets continue the stylistic development heard in the Seventh and Eighth Quartets. The Tenth featured a powerfully played Allegretto furioso scherzo, followed by a moving passacaglia, and in the Eleventh, the second movement scherzo was punctuated by swooping bow strokes, and in the fourth and fifth movements the first and second violins, respectively, suggested a buzzing fly and then the chirping of birds. In the sixth movement, titled Elegy (the quartet is dedicated to the memory of the late second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, which had premiered most of the prior quartets), a funeral march theme begins in the viola and cello and is taken up by the second violin as a countermelody in the first violin soars above. The Twelfth Quartet departs radically from its predecessors, beginning each of its two movements atonally then incorporating twelve-note rows into an essentially, and ultimately, tonal composition.

The fifth concert was the most emotionally powerful. The concert was, for the most part, played Adagio; indeed, the Thirteenth Quartet begins and ends at that tempo, and all six movements of the Fifteenth Quartet are so marked. Like the Twelfth, the Thirteenth Quartet opens atonally with a twelve-note row, but ultimately becomes firmly tonal. The Thirteenth also features some rather unusual sounds, including bows tapping against the instruments’ bellies. Shostakovich dedicated the Thirteenth Quartet to the violist of the Beethoven Quartet, and accordingly wrote a very prominent viola part – which Dutton played with great skill and aplomb. In similar fashion, the Fourteenth Quartet was dedicated to the cellist of the Beethoven Quartet, allowing Finckel’s outstanding cello playing to come to the fore. Indeed, the superb playing of both Dutton and Finckel was evident throughout the entire cycle.

The concluding Fifteenth Quartet was completed in the last year of Shostakovich’s life, after he had learned that his heart ailment could not be cured, and reflects his anticipation of his impending death. After an ‘Elegy’, the first of six Adagio movements, ‘Serenade’ is introduced with shrieking crescendos from the violins and viola, followed by pizzicatos so forceful that Dutton’s viola sustained a broken string, forcing a delay of some five minutes in music that is meant to be played without interruption. (The risk of such a mishap was presciently noted in Kenneth Carter’s review for The Classical Source of the Emerson’s London performances.) The penultimate ‘Funeral March’, consisting largely of a succession of solos, leads into ‘Epilogue’, in which elements of the prior movements are recalled amidst a variety of plucking, tapping, and other unusual sounds, until the final viola semitone trill fades away.

Shostakovich’s string quartets reflect the hardships and sorrows of his life, both as an individual and as a composer – including his struggles with the Soviet Union’s political and artistic power structures. Yet the bleak aspects of these works were often counterbalanced by lively dance and folk rhythms, inventive humour, and, in most of the quartets, gentle and harmonious endings. One can hope that the widespread commemorations of Shostakovich’s centenary will result in his music, including the quartets, being played with increased frequency in coming years.

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