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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

SHOSTAKOVICH: Complete String Quartets
Emerson String Quartet
DG 463 284-2, 5 discs (75'26, 76'58, 77'56, 68'33 & 60'38)

Experience Classicsonline

Shostakovich's fifteen string quartets, along with Bartok's six, are the greatest of the twentieth century. They also differ markedly. Shostakovich's are melodic, lyrical and often direct (and perhaps more intimate, not least in the final three), whereas Bartok's are abrasive and often make for an uncomfortable listening experience, astonishingly powerful though they are. Bartok's span his entire creative life, Shostakovich's do not. Although he also wrote fifteen symphonies, it is perhaps significant that the quartets do not all mirror the contemporaneous issues from which the symphonies' creative energy is derived. The First Quartet, from 1938, appears after both the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, yet there is none of the monumentalism, none of the terror, high tragedy or brutal destructiveness that marks those masterpieces out from Shostakovich's earlier works.

Although the First Quartet is not his shortest (that honour falls to the Seventh), it is in many ways the most typically Beethovenian. Its four movements are short, but it is not until the second movement, with its lyricism and melodic phrasing, that we begin to hear a master of shading and colour at work. The Emersons play it persuasively, although it not until the Second Quartet that we hear both Shostakovich and the Emersons in more astonishing form. Although this is the only wartime quartet (1944), it does not have quite the power or bleak desolation of the Eighth (inspired by the bombing of Dresden) written in 1960. It does, however, have an urgent, almost unsettling plangency (sample the Emersons in the final movement from 6'38 as the pace quickens and then hollows out to a slow, haunting close). One of his longest quartets, the Emerson's handle the tension of the moderato and adagio superbly, the final movement's variations shadowed by some hauntingly bare, almost surreal upper harmonics.

The Fourth and Fifth Quartets mark the beginnings of Shostakovich's mature quartet style. The Fourth's (1949) opening movement, with its recitative high violins singing archingly, before plunging into shadowy distillation, is movingly played by the Emersons. The second movement andantino is beautifully phrased (the soulful, searching violin and viola passage leading to the cello's first entry at 1'16 is heavenly), and the third movement scherzo is duly menacing. The cello is dark and brooding, the violins at 2'15 and 2'39 chattering like blackbirds. The last movement, which suggests Shostakovich's first direct referencing to death in any of the quartets, is compellingly drawn and ends superbly. At 8'15 the progression towards stasis begins with a melody on the cello , reinstated at 8'46, and hollow pizzicato follows like death itself hammering out its trenchant calling.

The Fifth (1952) is Shostakovich's first quartet to have a direct connection with one of the symphonies, in this case the Tenth. The portraiture evinced in the Scherzo of the Tenth is here somewhat replicated. The bass line is strongly drawn, as is the droning lyricism. The pacing is fast, the string playing often disfigured by grotesquely drawn harmonies (6'20 onwards), and the direct quotes from the Tenth at 7'50 to 8'06 are savagely presented. By contrast, the Sixth Quartet, from 1956, is his first post-Stalinist one. Compared with both the Fourth and the Fifth Quartets it is substantially less weighty, certainly more dance-like in its rhythms and more lyrical than the monstrous, forbidding writing Shostakovich felt compelled to write for its predecessor. Darkness does loom transparently towards the end, invading like an incoming tide imperceptibly clouding the shore. The Emerson Quartet define this shift beautifully, if somewhat enigmatically.

The year 1960 saw two quartets - the short Seventh and the magnificent Eighth. The Seventh, short though it is, has every reason to be Shostakovich's most personal work. Dedicated to his wife, it is a work with a quite astonishing landscape. Moving between passion and tension, it draws largely on fugal writing to make the distinctions apparent. The upward momentum of the third movement (to 00'16) is bitterly phrased, the turbulent chord writing from 1'07 onwards fantastically carved and the dissonance before 2'00, leading to the melancholic waltz theme at 2'32, is all superbly articulated by the Emersons. The pizzicato passages (at 4'00) shift between steel-like brightness to deep, velvety darkness.

The Eighth is probably Shostakovich's single most recorded string quartet. It is one of the bleakest works he ever wrote, a work where there appears an honest reflection that there is no hope, just despair and no reconciliation. The opening itself is tenebrous, and totally unrelenting, the mood not shifting until the cathartic attaca writing of the second movement. Eugene Drucker, violinist with the Emersons, says of the second movement, 'you have the extreme violence .......: it depicts the frenzy and violence of war, and it's in that context that the Jewish theme is shrieked by the two violins in octaves'. You can hear these two octaves at 0'56 and 2'24, and the impassioned playing makes this fully realised. Using the D-S-C-H (D-E flat-C-B) motif of the Tenth Symphony (heard very obviously throughout the third movement, but particularly at 1'48 to 2'50 and again at 3'33 to 3'39) the Emersons give a reading that is both impassioned and expressively powerful. This is certainly a case where their dynamic range is used to greater effect than on any other recording of the work. Whilst occasionally the Emerson's superlative technique can sometimes mask the emotive power of Shostakovich's writing, this Eighth has an unusually personal drama about it. Somehow, the truth of this recording is all too unsparing. Philip Setzer's comment that 'the skeletons get up to dance' seems wholly appropriate.

The Ninth (1964), a monumentally interconnected work, the Tenth (1964), with its passacaglia, the Eleventh, the most operatic of the cycle and the Twelfth (1968) all somehow rest in the shadow of the final three quartets, a triumvirate of despairing, almost hallucinogenic and pain-drenched works.

The Thirteenth is the only work in a single movement, and has a particularly striking darkness to it, helped by the dominance of the viola. Both the opening and close of the work bring extraordinarily sensitive playing from Lawrence Dutton, a violist with an unusually deep tone world (and shattering intonation, just before 19'08). The pizzicato articulation and high violin harmonics (10'01 onwards) are beautifully captured. This quartet is both surreal (keeping in line with Shostakovich's somewhat pill-fueled demeanour at the time) and extraordinarily atonal (compared with its predecessors). The Emersons ply this work with attenuated, almost marantic tone, both in the jazz theme and the slumbering, cataleptic outer parts. Whereas the viola dominated the Thirteenth, so the cello does the Fourteenth. This does not perhaps inhabit the same sound world as its immediate partners, but the Mahlerian undertones are always evident. The Emersons play with pungency and a certain causticness. The Fifteenth is simply as depressing a work as you will ever hear. The opening is skeletal with notes isolated in ghostly darkness - and the Emersons play this as if they were extracting each note one by one from the ether. The contrast between the work's dissonance and restrained violence is often unsettling, and more so when the clarity of the recording makes it appear so very close to you. That the Emersons sustain this eloquent grief-ridden tragedy so marvellously is a miracle.

So how do the Emersons compare with others? In terms of technique, these are the most perfectly played performances to have yet appeared. The articulation, particularly in the faster movements (which are taken much faster than any of their rivals), is phenomenal, and intonation is invariably spot-on. They have in the past (in both Beethoven and Bartok) been accused of placing technique ahead of understanding and interpretation, and I'm afraid that is a valid criticism in this cycle as well. There are many extraordinary things - the last three quartets, the Eighth, the Ninth and the Fifth which easily stand comparison with the greatest recordings of the work. The Borodin Quartet, on EMI (not on the later CD version, but on the earlier LPs) bring astonishing girth to Shostakovich's fragmentary and personal imagination. These LPs are in need of a CD release, for they are still unsurpassed. But the Emerson cycle is now the primary recommendation for this music on CD - easily outflanking the Fitzwilliams on Phillips and the Eder on Naxos. DG have given the Emersons a spacious recording, and despite the fact these are live recordings there are no extra sounds to distract from the pleasure of hearing this extraordinary music. I will be reviewing the Emersons Shostakovich cycle in London (at the Wigmore Hall and Barbican during May) for Seen & Heard and will be interested to see what differences emerge. An important release.


Marc Bridle


































































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