It has been said that composers entrust the expression of their innermost thoughts and feelings to that most intimate medium, the string quartet. Shostakovich took this several steps further: constantly in danger, alternately acclaimed and reviled, torn between revulsion toward a murderous regime and the need to survive, he used his string quartets to encode what he could not openly acknowledge.
Shostakovich's first quartet, composed in 1938, is relatively cheerful and optimistic, but from then on they become increasingly desolate, their bleakness broken only by fleeting glimpses of sunshine. His last quartet was written in the hospital the year before he died; cast in six often virtually static slow movements, its pervasive despair makes the suggestion that he was writing his own requiem entirely believable. The 15 quartets constitute a secret diary of searing emotional intensity.
The Emerson String Quartet feels that the Shostakovich cycle, which it performs in a series of five Alice Tully Hall concerts this month and next, represents one of the major blocks of 20th-century chamber music. "The quartets may have been the greatest discovery of our career," says cellist David Finckel. "We came to them gradually: like most groups, we learned the eighth first; then, as we added one or two each season, we realized that every one of them was really great, and by the time we got to the end, we knew that this cycle would be as indispensable to our repertoire as the Beethoven, Bartók, and Mendelssohn cycles."
Violinist Eugene Drucker says the Emerson's total Shostakovich immersion was inspired by the players' discovery that whenever they included a Shostakovich quartet in a mixed program, "it always attracted more attention and elicited more comments from the audience than the rest of the program." So during the summers of 1994, 1998, and 1999, they recorded the cycle in concerts performed at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado; the five-disc set was released in January 2000, a month before they presented the complete quartets in five programs at Alice Tully Hall.
This year they are joining the worldwide celebrations of Shostakovich's centennial by repeating that feat of emotional endurance. Again, the quartets will be arranged in chronological order, inviting listeners to observe the development of the composer's technical mastery and distinctive voice, and to accompany him on the journey through his tormented, tragic life. Finckel says, "When we played the cycle six years ago, we were amazed at the audience's reaction. It was the first time that we, and probably most listeners as well, were experiencing the quartets in their entirety, and I think the music must have been a revelation for them no less than for us, because they stayed with us and the composer through the cycle in such a committed way. But," he adds, "during the last six years, all the quartets, not only the eighth, which has become a classic, have increasingly entered the mainstream repertoire. I see them on everybody's programs."
The Shostakovich quartets are widely regarded as more accessible than those by other 20th-century composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, and Bartók, which the Emerson Quartet also performs. "It's easy to write music that's accessible," Finckel remarks. "What's tough is making it accessible without making it cheap, and Shostakovich is never cheap."
"I think one reason his music has such an immediate appeal to so many people," says Drucker, "is that he expresses strong feelings so directly. The slow movements are full of true pathos; you feel he really gets to the heart of things. He's been accused of being banal," he continues, "but though the music sometimes seems simplistic on the surface, there are many layers to it. His use of irony is an example: the happy parts, like certain happy endings, actually sound too happy, as if he were saying: 'You want a happy ending? okay, here's a happy ending.'"
"What's interesting," says Finckel, "is that, despite all his tribulations and travails, he must have felt very secure as a composer. He gave the performers a lot of interpretive leeway and was very sparing in his instructions, while Berg and Bartók wrote something over almost every note."
As is well known by now, the Emerson's violinists switch parts; this gives the quartet two leaders but must pose problems. "It's not a big deal," says violinist Philip Setzer. "The important thing is to construct balanced programs. Of course, if one of us feels very strongly about leading a particular quartet, we accommodate that." Finckel adds, "Shostakovich was very democratic: he gave all the players equally difficult, challenging solos. So everybody gets a chance, if not in one quartet, then in another. For example, the 13th quartet is for the viola, and does he ever tax the violist!"
Since presenting the cycle in New York six years ago, the Emerson has performed it in Germany, in London (twice), and in Italy, where the concerts are being spread over three years. "That's a wonderful project," says Finckel. "We get to visit Florence and Turin, two of our favorite cities, three times." Naturally, all this experience has affected their playing of the quartets. "I think at our next Lincoln Center concerts we shall approach them as more seasoned experts; the music will be more part of us, so the performances will have a dimension that the earlier ones didn't have."
But the players say that what has deepened their feelings for Shostakovich more than anything else is their involvement with the theater piece The Noise of Time, conceived by the English director Simon McBurney and staged at the John Jay Theater in 2000 and 2001. Finckel explains: "Simon had us play the 15th quartet, first in sections, then straight through, while standing, sitting, and moving around the stage in all sorts of unusual configurations. The theater is very dark, so we had to memorize the whole piece; it's the only quartet we can play from memory.
"This has been an ongoing project," he continues. "We are now up to 40 or 50 performances; it's had runs in Los Angeles, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and‹the crowning moment for us‹in Moscow. We felt we were bringing the piece home! It was also the first time any of us had set foot in Russia. A guide took us around Moscow and showed us the places where Shostakovich went, where his works were performed: the Great Hall, the small hall, the conservatory. We had been a bit worried about the reception the piece might get in Russia, but the response was extraordinary. We had distinguished conductors, composers, and writers in the audience, and the people actually thanked us for coming and reminding the Russians of their history and their culture. Many of them were born after Shostakovich died and know nothing about Stalin and his times. It was a tremendously gratifying experience‹in a way perhaps the culmination of that entire project. So I think when we come back to Lincoln Center, we'll be a changed group. I can't say in exactly what way. You don't know how you change while you're in the process of changing, and we don't consciously make any radical decisions. It's part of an evolution, of growing as an artist. People will have to come and hear for themselves what has changed."
Edith Eisler writes frequently about the arts.