Shostakovich: String Quartets (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: DG
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Emerson String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 463 284-2
There’s little doubt that Shostakovich’s string quartets must be regarded as his most confessional works. To many listeners they represent the very essence of the composer’s innermost thoughts and feelings largely uninhibited by the strictures of socialist realism. But whether they are essentially private works is another matter. In many respects, although the medium of the quartet suggests intimacy, Shostakovich’s musical statements have a strongly theatrical dimension that only really comes to life in public performance. For this reason, the Emerson String Quartet’s decision to record the cycle at a series of concerts which took place at the Aspen Music Festival between 1994 and 1999 pays immense dividends, and results in performances that have an electrifying presence that could never have been reproduced in the recording studio.

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Needless to say, the playing is technically stunning, especially so in the faster movements such as the Allegro non troppo of No. 3, the fugal Allegro of No. 7 or the Allegretto furioso of No. 10, all of which bristle with a manic energy which I have rarely encountered in other recordings. But the Emerson also manages to encapsulate the desolation and despair of slower-paced sections of the late quartets to similarly powerful effect. Although obviously aware of the ‘authentic’ Shostakovich performing tradition as epitomised by the Borodin Quartet in its legendary cycle on BMG Melodiya, the players have established an equally convincing and individual approach, in places adopting more urgent tempi and modes of expression than their Russian colleagues, as for example in the Third and Ninth Quartets.

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Making an outright first choice between two outstanding ensembles seems invidious, and is further complicated by the fact that both the much-praised St Petersburg (Hyperion) and Sorrel Quartets (Chandos) are still in the process of completing their cycles. Nonetheless, in terms of recorded sound, blended ensemble and immediacy of impact, the Emerson cannot be faulted, its performances offering triumphant proof that the universality of Shostakovich’s message transcends the documentary background of these works. Erik Levi