Emerson Quartet delves deeply into late Shostakovich at Tanglewood

July 12, 2014
By Aaron Keebaugh

The Emerson String Quartet performed Shostakovich’s final five quartets Thursday night at Tanglewood.

In Shostakovich’s hands the string quartet was less a conversation among friends than an essay in music that wrestled with the darkest of human emotions. Take, for example, his late quartets, works that seem to muse upon death and melancholy, albeit with the composer’s sardonic wit never far away.

The last five of Shostakovich’s quartets were the focus of a marathon concert given by the Emerson String Quartet at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall Thursday night.

It is music the Emersons know well. The venerable ensemble’s critically acclaimed discs of the composer’s complete quartets stand as some of the finest interpretations of the works ever recorded.

But that was the old Emerson. Last year Welsh cellist Paul Watkins replaced longtime member David Finckel with results to the group’s characteristic pristine sound that has sometimes divided critical opinion.

For much of Thursday night, though, they were in fine form, playing these works with effective emotional detachment and a soft but polished ensemble blend.

Some of the chilliest music of the evening came in the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor.

The Thirteenth Quartet is cast in a single movement. Its languid opening lines dissolve into chirping motives that brush up against static muted chords. The Emersons played the piece’s Cold War-era dissonances with an appropriately bitter touch. Lawrence Dutton’s viola brought the piece to an intense and mesmerizing conclusion.

The four movements of the Fourteenth Quartet offer a break from the serious tone the composer set in the previous work. The chiseled statements of the outer movements give way to side-winding themes that weave into delicate, almost Haydnesque textures. The ensemble found the range in this music, digging in for the spiky, agitated statements and giving the hymn-like finale a soothing, if distant, warmth. The ponderous lines of the central Adagio carried an emotional intensity rare to this piece. Here, Watkins played his phrases with a burnished tone.

The two movements of the String Quartet No. 12 show a composer experimenting with chromatic writing on the very edge of twelve-tone technique. Tonality prevails as the music settles, fitfully, into D-flat. This piece found the musicians exploring the full range of their sound. They played the meandering opening with vivid colors. Again Watkins was in stellar form, playing his theme in the Adagio at the center of the second movement with mournful, singing tone.

But there may be no more moving and austere music among Shostakovich’s late quartets than the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, his last and longest work in the medium.

The Fifteenth Quartet opens with themes of stoic lyricism before unraveling into jagged chords and a rather plastic waltz. Perhaps due to the music’s thin scoring and barren landscape, or because this was the final piece of the long evening, the Emersons lost some of their ensemble finesse. The violins were unfocused in their entrances, and the interweaving lines of the opening suffered from questionable intonation. But those moments were rare, and the musicians regained their concentration as the piece progressed. The mock-romantic Nocturne glowed and the funeral march, a reworking of Taps, sounded with somber gravity.

The String Quartet No. 11 in F minor is a suite-like collection of seven disparate movements. Death is a pervasive theme. The composer dedicated the work to the memory of his friend Vasily Shirinsky, who was a founding member of the Beethoven String Quartet, an ensemble that premiered most of the Shostakovich’s chamber works.

The Emersons, with hollow tone, supplied an icy rendering of the work’s introductory movements before digging in for the vigorous Etude and Humoresque. The intensity gave way in the moving Elegy, where Watkins and Dutton played a slow-moving theme, in octaves, with pristine blend and intonation. Violinist Philip Setzer answered with a stirring, solemn line, and Eugene Drucker followed soon after with a haunting melody.


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