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Shostakovich Cycle V: Emerson String Quartet, QEH, 11.3. 2006 (CC)

 

The last three quartets of Shostakovich played in a single concert is perhaps a daunting concept – not that it kept away any of the near-capacity audience. Like Beethoven's late works in this medium, there is a real concentration of expression, plus evidence of great struggle. Beethoven though, whatever the struggle, accepts the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel, a concept unthinkable for Shostakovich. As if to emphasise this, the Emersons performed the these quartets in near-darkness, a slightly muted spotlight on the quartet and (for the Fifteenth at least) only the Fire Exit signs on.

The Thirteenth Quartet, Op. 138 of 1970 effectively features the viola. It was written for Vadim Borisovsky, who had left the famous Beethoven Quartet in 1964. It provided ample opportunity for the Emerson's Lawrence Dutton to shine, and shine he did, his long unaccompanied lines deep-toned and melancholy. Ghostly non-vibrato chords from his colleagues, a cello parody of a walking bass, and astringent attacks meant that this interpretation staunchly avoided any hint of a comfort zone. If Setzer's First Violin was a trifle over-literal on occasion, perhaps it is best to err in this direction for works such as this. It was eminently believable that this work post-dates the astonishing Fourteenth symphony by a year.

The Fourteenth Quartet, Op. 142 (1973) includes some late-Shostakovich cheerfulness (read cheerfulness in full shadow) plus cello writing which, in David Finckel's capable hands, hearkened back to the First Cello Concerto. There was lots of energy here - the way the two-note theme was almost literally thrown around the four instruments in the finale, for example. Shifting, restless and even invoking Ives in one chordal passage, this is a fascinating work whose bitter-sweet close appears at the time surprising, yet the only way to finish.

The second half brought a reminder that the Fifteenth Quartet is, to my mind at least, Shostakovich's supreme masterpiece. A reminder too, of the Borodin Quartet's performance at the Barbican (late eighties/early nineties?) that reduced its audience to numbed, and extended, silence. Not quite the same level of concentration here, yet much to admire nevertheless. The emaciated second violin at the opening (Drucker) was as blanched a sound as can be imagined; straight octaves between viola and cello were quite simply Death captured in sound-waves. The bleak landscape of this amazing score (five Adagios and an Adagio molto) is such a challenge to any interpreters; the nerve required to give the single-note crescendi impact is remarkable and most disturbing they were, too. Setzer, whom I have sometimes considered inferior to Drucker despite their supposed interchangeability, really came into his own as he proved himself capable of projecting huge emotions. A Funeral March in the midst of all this is almost (pardon the expression) the final nail in the coffin, and indeed the Emersons came close to plumbing these six-foot depths.

From the concerts I heard in this series, the Emersons remain a formidable ensemble; if not a great one.

 


Colin Clarke

 

 

 

 



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