Emerson Quartet Shostakovich

Shostakovich
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 the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on Sunday 5 March 2006 [Quartets 1, 2 & 3], Monday 6 March [4, 6 & 5], Wednesday 8 March [7, 9 & 8], Friday 10 March [10, 11 & 12] and Saturday 11 March [13, 14 & 15]


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 11 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

These masterpieces stand at the pinnacle of 20th-century string quartet writing, shoulder to shoulder with those of Bartók and Janáček.

In Shostakovich, I detect the smack of a bipolar temperament. Great, long, lyrical romances express a bleak, lone sadness – the ‘down’ moods. Then, often, a droll insouciance is thrust into our faces – speeding up into a bitter, hectic frenzy and interspersed with sardonic jabs of musical self-mutilation. These are his ‘up’ moods.

Shostakovich’s emotions were essentially cold – a Siberia of burning ice and freezing pain. The experience of being himself scarred him deeply: – but no pity, no tears. As the string quartets progress, he reaches ever more profoundly into his emotional depths. He wrestles with horror, dismay and nightmare – and probes the searing meaninglessness of his existence with increasing intensity. (“The Eternal Question: Why and for what?”, he suggested to the Borodin Quartet in rehearsal.]

The contrapuntal ensembles sound like screeching inner voices, vying for attention. Note, too, Shostakovich’s restlessness – he stays not long with anything.

The quartets’ experiment in weird, eccentric acts of daring; their sounds are often acidic, high-pitched and grating and their emotions are pain-filled yet remote.

To render the quartets more genial and accessible, one can dulcify the dances, impose a warm, Schubertian throb upon the music’s sensitive tearlessness and blame everything else on Stalin. (Yet, to my mind, the atrocities Stalin inflicted pale into insignificance when set beside the deep and cold self-hurt that Shostakovich tracked down within himself.)

What of the Emerson Quartet’s performances?

I was very conscious of hearing masters of their craft. Firm control – lightly assumed but tightly maintained – is these musicians’ hallmark. The sounds glow with suave technical finesse and an impelling, coarse gravity in accompaniment.

Their excellence made its mark in unexpected places.

I thoroughly enjoyed the light, effervescent dances – and being reminded that there were so many of them. Lilting and splendid, the music pranced with catchy, foot-tapping excitement. One of Shostakovich’s great musical gifts was a scintillating superficiality. (Also, the Russians can probably dance faster than anyone else can.)

The Emerson excelled in other simplicities: a rich, vibrant unison, an authoritative constant drone, staccatos that pierced like a rapier, not to mention imperiously plucked notes that risked breaking the string. Indeed, the performances clearly demonstrated just how often Shostakovich wrote moments for solo (sometimes sparsely accompanied) and duo.

Lawrence Dutton gave us many an imposing opening viola solo and David Finckel played his cello with quiet, arching finality at the close of many of the movements. Dialogue between these two was especially responsive, resonant and captivating. Viola and cello held the quartets down in fervent, unpitying darkness. Time after time, the performances focused upon accompaniments that were brusque, savage and repetitive. Meanwhile, the first violin elegised sweetly in a muted, almost inconsequential obbligato.

The high-spot of the week was the Eighth Quartet. There was a particular magic here – a burning intensity without let-up. This, the most dramatic of the quartets, may have suited the players’ performing style best. They certainly gave it an impassioned nobility in the face of relentless searching and frequent horror. Also, the players’ handling of the D-S-C-H motif was engrossing. On each of its several appearances, the musicians emphasised the marked change of context – as though Shostakovich was asking “Is this one me?” (Relating to “Who am I?”). The question had portent, but the answer (if the concluding violin rumination was the answer) was faint and subdued, certain only of its lack of consequence.

None of the other quartets moved me as much – not even the last three. I admired many features of the performances – and couldn’t quite identify the source of my unease. I felt the Emerson approached the music as if its emotion were warm rather than cold. The violins were much too sweet and not robust enough. I felt that the Emerson had observed very intelligently and very diligently where Shostakovich had gone on his emotional journey – but declined to take the journey themselves. The 13th and 15th quartets did not actually sustain the emotional intensity – even though appearing to do so. Also, the performances were often bare, but never bleak.

The programme gave a further clue, praising the Emerson’s “new standards of streamlined precision”. Shostakovich – streamlined? Were the composer’s torments streamlined? I didn’t want to hear streamlined accounts of those hectic, wild and despairing polkas and waltzes, or of the klezmer element, or those great hushed dolorous laments.



  • The Emerson’s complete survey of Shostakovich’s string quartets is on DG 475 7407 (5 CDs)
  • Universal

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