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[MUSIC REVIEW] Emerson String Quartet, all-Shostakovich program, July 19, 2006

Wednesday, July 19
Ozawa Hall

All Shostakovich Program
Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor
Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp
Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor

review by Seth Rogovoy, critic-at-large, Berkshire Living

(Lenox, Mass., July 19, 2006) -- You don't go so much to enjoy a concert of all Shostakovich music as you do to appreciate it or experience it. Just the other day I was speaking with a chamber musician who made the point that music is like an amber fossil -- it's very much a remnant of another time and culture. But that music is much more active and dynamic than a fossil embedded in rock, and that for those reasons, the rhythms and tones and melodies can do more than just about anything else to transport a listener to another time and place and culture.

It's debatable whether or not one wants to be taken back to the Soviet Union, where for most of his life Dmitri Shostakovich labored under the bootheel of dictators Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev. As heard in last night's exquisitely performed program by the Emerson String Quartet, this was a painful experience, and even when the composer's music seeks to battle the forces of totalitarianism, it is almost never without pain and suffering.

But there is almost always a certain aching, poignant beauty, and occasionally even a hint of optimism, humor, or rebellion, in Shostakovich's music, and all these were on display in the Emerson's performance of his last three string quartets.

The Emerson, which performs standing (cellist David Finckel plays seated but on a podium so he is nearly at eye level to the violinists), played the last three quartets in order. The Thirteenth opened with a mournful viola melody played by Lawrence Dutton (if there was a star of the evening, it may well have been Dutton, but that could also be because Shostakovich seemingly gave him so much of the heavy, important lifting). The violins, played by Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, joined in, adding harmonies and sprinklings of dissonance. This functioned almost as an introduction to Shostakovich's grammar of dissonance, laying down his basic vocabulary, and it put a listener in good stead for the rest of the evening's proceedings, as the violins seemingly went the "wrong way," rebelling against the "natural" harmony (if one wants, one can read political meaning into this, but it certainly works on a purely musical level, too). The piece concluded with the viola playing very softly, impossibly high and sharp, then joined by the violins for one final soaring high leap, as if the music were being sucked up into a black hole.

The Fourteenth began on a much lighter note and in a major key, but with the same distinctive sharp, angular, cutting high notes. The more rounded theme that began on the viola continued on in the cello and was then given variations by the violins. A duet between the viola and the cello felt almost like a folk dance. The violins then repeated a cello theme in an almost mocking, sweet fashion -- was the cello Stalin and the violins his sycophants?

Towards the end the pulse of the melody traveled through the four players such that they became one organism playing a single melody -- this was string quartet playing at its ultimate, which isn't a surprise coming from the Emerson, widely regarded as the ultimate string quartet.

The Fifteenth, the final quartet of the evening and of the composer's life, began with a simple folk theme played by the second violin, with a distant, far-off feel, before the first violin accompanied it with chromatic harmonies that bent the piece into shape. The cello and viola then joined in, adding ballast to what became a sadder, more mournful dirge. The quartet kept the sound coming in waves, breathing music like a bellows rather than playing single lines.

The middle of the piece featured striking , virtuosic round-robin shrieking from the violins and viola, where single high notes where continued around tag-team style from player to player. They must have a lot of fun practicing this. A delirious trance of ostinatos in the second violin and cello were topped by the viola singing a pretty melody, as if it were avoiding the mundane, ominous reality of what lay at the basis of th epiece -- was this a reverie of childhood, or pre-1917 Russia? We know this piece to have been written when Shostakovich knew he was knocking on heaven's door. At the end , the music levelled out onto a flat plane, and just as it breathed its last breath, it died out.

-- review by Seth Rogovoy, critic-at-large, Berkshire Living

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