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Shostakovich Quartet Cycle II: Emerson String Quartet, QEH, Monday 6.3 2006 (CC)

It's always good to welcome the Emersons to the South Bank, and good to have the opportunity to hear them live in the works of Shostakovich, a composer with whose music they won a 2000 Gramophone Award.

David Fanning's introduction to this particular series draws attention to the Emerson Quartet's 'setting new standards in streamlined precision'. Indeed. And perhaps that's part of the problem. A couple of technical slips aside, there was a huge amount of prowess to admire in this concert of Quartets Nos. 4-6 (played in the order 4-6-5). But the technical wizardry came at a soul-cost, as time and time again I found myself regretting that their squeaky-clean Americanism precludes a Soviet-style tonal and expressive depth. This 'cleanness' was most obviously encountered in their layout – three members stand, something that detracts from the intimacy that is so much a vital part of the experience of these pieces. In essence, what it says is that they are projecting out to us, the audience, instead of drawing us in.

The Fourth Quartet (1949) found the 1st/2nd violin set-up as Drucker/Setzer - they regularly swap around and who was playing what was even itemised in the programme. The curious sterility of the Fourth's performance hardly boded well, particularly the first movement (the Andantino slow movement did at least progress towards an emotion identifiable as desolation). Yet the cello playing by David Finckel in the 'second ' allegretto' (the third movement – three out of four movements have Shostakovich's favourite tempo indication!) was only fairly characterful and I have heard much better from him than this. And the spikiness of the themes seemed somehow in a no-man's land, unable to speak truthfully as Shostakovichian.


The Sixth Quartet, Op. 101 (1956, so some seven yars after the Fourth, and also post-Tenth Symphony) fared better, its faux-naiveté and bitter-sweet tinges well drawn – perhaps because Setzer evinced more character than Drucker. Whatever the differences between the two violinists, there was distinctly more passion to this reading, and the whispered utterances of the Lento were undeniably impressive.


Post-interval came the Fifth Quartet, Op. 92 (1952). Fanning's note is fascinating in its description of an 'Ustvolskaya theme' (from her 1949 Trio for clarinet, violin and piano), as it is in his spot-on description of the ultimate (and deliberate) irreconcilability of Shostakovich's materials. The Emersons impressed most in the expansive and mainly restful Andante middle movement, although the tremendous stillness of the quartet's ultimate close also worked. The major worry was the uninvolved first movement and the performance's (to be farnk) lack of structural integrity. The long crescendo of tension as well as dynamic failed to make its effect for this very reason – lack of long-range thought. Expert but unconvincing Shostakovich.




Colin Clarke

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