IT'S SAFE TO SAY that no composers worked under such pressure as those under the Soviet regime. And the most pressured of these, because of his genius and fame, was Dmitri Shostakovich. His career—his 15 symphonies formed the preeminent symphonic cycle of the 20th century—was a roller-coaster of official favor and censure, in a time and place where favor could disappear at the state's slightest whim and censure most often meant extermination. The first duty of Soviet artists was simply to glorify the state and Communist ideals, and Shostakovich's symphonies were public statements, bearing heavy ideological baggage that nearly ruined some of them (particularly the Second, Third, and 12th). Yet they also reveal the composer's personal response to his turbulent times, often through his use of ironic over- or understatement.
Emerson String Quartet
Meany Hall, Wednesday, April 12
Shostakovich's string quartets, also 15 in number, are more intimate works, and to many musicians and listeners they speak more directly of the composer's inner life. The complete cycle has been recorded several times, notably by the Borodin Quartet, who brought the works a special insight through their contact with the composer himself. This winter the Emerson Quartet released their complete collection on Deutsche Grammophon. To many (and to me) the Emerson is the finest chamber ensemble playing today—their combination of musical understanding, emotional power, and sonic clarity is unique in the quartet world—and their exploration of these works was eagerly awaited.
To accompany the release of the five-CD box set, the Emerson is presenting the Shostakovich quartets in concerts this season. In February, New York City was blessed with the complete cycle of 15 in five concerts. And in its two Seattle appearances, the Emerson is combining late Shostakovich with late Beethoven: They performed quartets 13 and 14 last October (with Beethoven's op. 132) and will play the 15th, in E-flat minor, in Meany Hall next Wednesday (with Beethoven's op. 130 and the stupendous "Grosse Fuge").
THE 15th QUARTET was the basis for The Noise of Time, presented last month in New York City, a multimedia theater piece by director Simon McBurney that framed the Emerson's performance of this work. Venturing into and beyond Kronos Quartet territory, the Emerson played from memory, sharing the stage with film clips, slide projections, taped readings, and four doppelg䮧er actors. Allusions to the events of Shostakovich's life underscore the view, present also in Paul Epstein's excellent liner notes for the Emerson's box set, that the 15th Quartet was for the composer a summing up, a sort of auto-requiem.
Shostakovich finished his last quartet in 1974, a year and a half before his death, as his health declined. He cast it in a highly unusual form: six slow movements played without a break, each given a characteristic title. The first movement, an icy "Elegy," is haunted throughout by a slowly treading rhythm, a long-short-short motif that was a favorite of Shostakovich's, practically his personal signature. The second movement is even harsher and bleaker, full of violent crescendos like approaching sirens. The central episode is a ghostly, hesitant waltz. It's certainly one of the most avant-garde sounding pieces the composer ever wrote; that he gave it the innocuous designation "Serenade," a title evoking Mozart, mandolins, and moonlit nights, is a good example of his wry sensibility. Following these is the frenzied but brief "Intermezzo," the silvery undulations of the "Nocturne," and a melodramatic "Funeral March." The final movement, "Epilogue," opens with a trilling violin cadenza that's taken up by the cello and recalled in the closing bars, a fluttering counterpoint to the final fadeout.
Shostakovich seemed to have considered his quartets a refuge from officialdom, writing them "under the radar" of a regime that found big orchestral and choral works the most effective propaganda tool. In Testimony, the composer's disputed memoirs, he remarks on the privacy of chamber music: "You can't keep watch on composers either, particularly if they don't write ballets or operas. You can write a little quartet and play it at home with friends." So there is some irony in interpreting the quartets autobiographically.
Shostakovich was drawn to the string quartet form, traditionally less programmatic and more "absolute music" than the symphony, in large part because he craved privacy. He wanted to avoid the sort of hyperanalytical public scrutiny, each bar reinterpreted as p.c. socialist ideology, that his symphonies received. It's perhaps best to consider all of his quartets (with the exception of his Eighth, an overt musical memoir full of self-quotation) as reflective of an artist in whom public duty and private need—confession and reticence, musical emotion and craft—were continually at war.