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Emersonian Explorations of Shostakovich’s Late Styles


Emerson Quartet (file photo)
Emerson Quartet (file photo)

Over the span of some three hours last night, Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall housed a truly memorable extended presentation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s last five string quartets (numbers 11 through 15, composed between 1966 and 1974). Far from weighing on an audience, the Emerson Quartet’s immersion was profoundly moving, and those in attendance will remember it for years.

These works are dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet, with whom Shostakovich had a close friendship and deep working relationship. This group premiered all but the first and last of the composer’s string quartets, and numbers eleven through fourteen are dedicated to each player individually: Vasily Shirinsky (second violin; eleven), Dmitri Tsyganov (first violin; twelve), Vadim Borisovsky (viola; thirteen), and Sergei Shirinsky (cello; fourteen). The dedications generally correspond to a musical focus for that instrument. The fifteenth quartet was to be premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, but the death of cellist Sergei Shirinsky (brother of violinist Vasily) put paid to that plan, and Leningrad’s Taneyev Quartet gave it its first public airing. While Shostakovich might have been in declining health during the years he wrote these five pieces, facing down his own death and those of friends as well as the political upheavals and deaths of the Prague Spring and the brutality of Brezhnev’s regime, he nevertheless wrote music that music expresses hope and faith, wonder and curiosity. Missing here is the exuberance and the sarcastic humor of earlier Shostakovich, but the protean gift for melody and harmony remains. The forms of these quartets are innovative and the music intimates immortality—of sound, and of Shostakovich.

Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122 is in seven movements, played attaca. This is a pared-down composition; from the Introduction: Andantino individual voices predominate. While each member may have sometimes played alone, the ensemble maintained unity. The first violin starts and ends the piece with real technical challenges. Eugene Drucker exhibited formidable bow control especially on the long-held final note drawn out on one bow stroke.

Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, Op. 122 (1968) is in four movements but played as two. Stylistically this is very different music from the previous. There is a richness to the opening Moderato with the walking cello theme nodding back towards Baroque musical writing even as it passes through the twelve notes of an octave to create what certainly resembles a tone row and thus remains unabashedly modern. The Allegretto returns us unequivocally to the 20th-century with its martial, inevitable progress: a relentless attack, a stampede of notes which continues until the conversation runs off into four simultaneous soliloquies before re-grouping around the theme. There is bone-weary sadness in the Adagio as the muted instruments take on an even more pronounced funeral aspect, building to climax and searching for release in the concluding Allegretto. The theme, in parallel in the two violins, gives the ending an incantatory power, of Shostakovich raging against the dying of the light as the curtain falls heavily down.

A brief intermission allowed the musicians to relax and the audience an opportunity to recover the power of speech and return to reality surrounding us in the hall.

We regrouped for Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Minor Op. 138 (1970), a three movement work played continuously, shining a spotlight on the viola; Lawrence Dutton delivered a truly magisterial reading. The outer movements (Adagio and Tempo primo) are a study in attack, while the middle (Adagio) is a quieter yet still fierce exploration of the power of sound, concluding with a primal scream ricocheting off the strings. Generally considered cryptic, the work famously includes instruction to the second violin and the cello to play col legno against the table of their respective instruments at irregular intervals, producing a resonant, wooden knock. Freighted with intimaitons of fate or the unwinding of a clock by many writers, I hear it as a percussive counterpoint to the diminishing volume of the music: a reminder, again, that Shostakovich knows his end is nigh but is not resigned in the face of this inevitable fate awaiting us all. A kick, then, to resonate outwards.

Quartet no. 14 in F-sharp Major, Op. 142 (1973) is in four movements all played without pause. The Allegretto opens with a theme inspissated with meditative joy which dances and steps along. The Adagio is more melancholic, gaining in lyricism and intensity as it goes. The cello introduces a lilting figure adding a soupçon of levity to the proceedings (although nothing like the composer’s own earlier biting wit). The medial Allegretto acquires a propulsive quality from a rhythmic cell repeated at the opening, before the music takes off in flights of soaring and gruff melodies which recall Shostakovich’s symphonic writing. The final Adagio opens with a sinuous melody in the first violin and has moments of simple joy in the sparsely adorned harmonic soundscape. The music ended with a sweet, heartbreakingly tender quietude.

Here followed the second intermission.

We returned to conclude this evening with what I find the most curious of all these quartets: Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor Op. 144 (1974). Six movements, all marked Adagio but each adorned with a descriptive title to accompany the homogeneous tempo indication, played attaca. Simplicity and calm suffuse this music in the opening Elegy, but then comes the Serenade with its screams as notes grow from ppp to fff, flying off the strings of each instrument in turn. The Intermezzo is practically a violin cadenza (why? I have no clue), most ably dispatched by Philip Setzer here; the music is both beautiful and oddly out of place in the midst of this quartet. The Nocturne returns us to more familiar harmonic and melodic territory, re-establishing a link with the opening Elegy. The Funeral March is potent, potent music, leading to an Epilogue revisits earlier ground as it contrasts the ethereal and the earthly.

The Emerson Quartet uncharacteristically performed seated. Drucker played first violin in quartets 11, 12, and 14, while Setzer took the first chair in quartets 13 and 15. Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel some 14 months ago, has a sound more fully merged now with the ensemble and a tight rapport with the other musicians. The stamina and intensity of all four musicians never flagged despite the musical mountain they set themselves to scale. The parts were balanced, the music attuned to the hall, and the delivery was of the impressive caliber we expect from the Emerson.

Occasionally performances mark and define the listener, becoming touchstones in our auditory lives. Certainly I am not alone in ranking last night’s among this small number. Music is ephemeral, sounds released in the air quickly dissipate. Some concerts become cherished memories, creating resonances that continue, quietly, softly, gently, to lap at space and time and influence us through the long years.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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