Alice Tully Hall
02/06/2000 - and 13, 16, 23, 27 February 2000
Dmitri Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets
Emerson String Quartet
Mstislav Rostropovich likes to label Shostakovich as the Beethoven of the 20th century. Certainly his output of symphonies and string quartets appears, at least on the surface, to be parallel to the great master of the Classical era and upon closer examination there are many similarities. One of the major differences, however, is that Beethoven used the quartet as an experimental proving ground for symphonic ideas whereas Shostakovich, who came to quartet writing rather late in life, only mirrors his larger conceptions in the more intimate medium. The Emerson Quartet, a fine collection of dedicated musicians, is presenting the entire cycle of 15 quartets three a night and then traveling to Great Britain to repeat the performance. There is much musical value here as well as a sense of the historical and political nature of the music of this still generally misunderstood protestor.
As with any encyclopedic survey, the quality is hardly consistent throughout. There is a definite evolution in the Shostakovich output leading to the masterful Quartet # 8 and beginning as they do with number one, the Emerson presents an interesting if somewhat erratic program for their first foray. It is generally conceded that the first effort in the genre is amateurish, fumbling around looking for a voice which never really appears. The writing is extremely thin and there is virtually no interaction between the four instruments on their way to a rather pedestrian conclusion. However, once we get into number two there is much buried treasure to unearth. Here the wartorn Dmitri echoes the anguish of the Symphony # 7 and writes emotional and extended solo passages for the first violin and the viola, although there is still very little "conversation" between the participants. Didn't Shostakovich ever listen to Haydn? The naked passages exposed the major flaw in the Emersonian performance These four men, all obviously sincere players, do not possess a very good tone, either individually or collectively, and this took much away from the expected great performance. The thematic material of these early works (although of a mature composer) is weak enough without such a lackluster reading. There was energy and consistency but not exceptional sound. The group was excellent in the demonic waltz section, one of those quintessentially Russian movements where the dance itself is evil (ala Prokofieff's Cinderella). I just wished for more depth of tone throughout.
After a spirited reading of the Adagio and Polka, Shostakovich's first attempt at quartet writing, the Emersonians redeemed themselves somewhat with a more zaftig performance of the Quartet # 3. Replacing Eugene Drucker with Philip Setzer as first violinist helped a lot, as we now had a much more beautiful tonal quality in the solo passages. Further, this piece is infused with many Jewish themes (Shostakovich, basically unlucky throughout the Stalin era, did receive the fortuitous assignment of studying Jewish music for the official ethnomusicology commissariat, not only inheriting a wealth of poignant melodies but also not having to move, as many of his comrades did, to some God forsaken place like Baku or Irkutsk) and this fit nicely with the ethnicity of the group who seemed to be energized by the Eastern harmonies and rhythms. The piece is very moving in the same way as so many of his wartime symphonies and the quartet dug in nicely to produce a powerful experience for us all. Especially in the Allegro non troppo there was a real sense of drama and a good sense of coordination. However, this was not a high echelon concert and I think that these enigmatic works might be better served in the hands of a Juilliard or Tokyo Quartet. But this is an important series and there is even better music to come in the concerts to follow. Perhaps they don't measure up as progressing steadily from 1 to 15, but the writing for the group gets better as the composer becomes more comfortable with the language of the medium. If you can get a seat for one of these concerts (there seemed to be none available for today) it would be well worth your while.
Frederick L. Kirshnit