SHOSTAKOVICH Complete String Quartets – Emerson
The Emerson Quartet are currently playing Shostakovich all over the world, and the appearance of this long-pondered integrale sets the seal on a process that has brought the quartets to the very centre of the repertoire - the ensemble's and ours (Haydn, Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich are now considered the masters of the form). Perhaps one should expect losses as well as gains. Operating here out of Aspen, Colorado, several geopolitical worlds away from the old Soviet Union, the Americans outpace the classic Borodin recordings in almost every movement, their virtuosity powerfully evident in the many scherzos and toccata-like passages. What some listeners will miss, however, is the intangible element of emotional specificity and sheer Russianness that once lurked behind the notes.
There is a paradox here. We kid ourselves that we understand the composer's life, times and motivation much better these days, but we look to the post-Dubinsky, State-sanctioned Borodin line-up to provide the warm, intense tone colour and big, eloquent vibratos we think of as authentic. Theirs remain the most heart-rendingly emotive readings, and Berlinsky, their de facto leader, is far and away the most eloquent of the cellists notwithstanding his yellowing Party card. Earlier Soviet LPs by the Beethoven Quartet, the team personally closest to Shostakovich, have not enjoyed comparably wide distribution. The Fitzwilliam Quartet, the first British ensemble to take up the cause, worked with the composer himself on the 13th Quartet, and the experience left such a mark that the group asked that there be no applause when they played the piece at public concerts. Now we have the Emerson Quartet, and, for all their splenetic projection, they bring something different: an objectified, technocratic sensibility that, like it or not, we will be hearing more of in the future.
The accent may no longer be Russian, but the playing is undeniably committed in its coolness, exposing nerve endings with cruel clarity. The hard, diamond-like timbre of the two violins (the leader's role is shared democratically) is far removed from the breadth of tone one might associate with a David Oistrakh, just as cellist David Finckel is no Rostropovich. But these recordings reveal surprising new facets of a body of work that is not going to stand still. The Fourth Quartet is a case in point, more delicate than most rivals with the finale relatively pressed, less insistently Jewish. The Fifth sometimes seems closer to Ustvolskaya or American minimalism than the mid-century Soviet symphonic utterance we are used to; the Emerson's almost hectoring mode of address and unfluctuating tempo are maintained for as long as (in) humanly possible. For me, the very vehemence of, say, the finale of the Ninth tends to blunt the harmonic sense of the music, leaving something more visceral and rosiny than the argument can stand. There is, however, a quicker way to get the unique feel of this set. Sample one of the encore pieces, the quartet version of the 'Polka' from The Age of Gold. Agreed: humanity and wit are in short supply, but can you resist the sheer explosive brilliance of the technique?
Very much part of the intended effect is DG's (larger-than-life?) recording - exceptionally vivid if somewhat airless, the separation of the instruments being achieved at the expense of tonal blend. Given that all the quartets were taped live with only remedial patching, the audience is commendably silent: their enthusiastic applause is retained for Nos 1, 2, 9 and 12 only.
A final word for the booklet-notes of Paul Epstein: they are eloquent and stimulating, if prone to the incautious revisionism challenged by Laurel Fay in her recent Shostakovich biography (OUP; see last month's book reviews). As an epigram to the last quartet, Epstein eschews specific subtexts to offer us a line from Samuel Beckett. It unarguably fits the Emerson's abstract style of performance while neatly encapsulating Shostakovich's dilemmas, political and personal: ' ... you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on. '(Then, again, we most of us feel like this sometimes.) This, surely, is a Shostakovich cycle for the 21st century.