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Shostakovich String Quartet (Mini-) Cycle at the Terrace Theater

available at AmazonEmerson SQ4t

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available at AmazonFitzwilliams SQ4t

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available at AmazonShostakovich SQ4t

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available at AmazonBrodsky Quartet

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available at AmazonRubio Quartet

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available at AmazonSorrel Quartet

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available at AmazonDanel Quartet
Fuga Libris

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available at AmazonSt.Petersburg SQ4t

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available at AmazonBorodin I

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available at AmazonBorodin II

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The Shostakovich Centenary comes late to Washington, but it comes hard. No complaints on our part for experiencing the baffling giant of Russian composers four times in a row at the Kennedy Center. The Emerson String Quartet’s concert Monday night at the Terrace Theater was, after the Kirov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on Sunday, the second of those nights. Playing Shostakovich’s quartets 1, 5, and 7 they opened a mini series that will present the first eight of DSCH’s fifteen quartets and his phenomenal piano quintet. Nominally sold out on Tuesday and Wednesday, the current weather makes last minute availability of tickets a little more likely and worth a try. The performances (so much can already be judged from Monday’s concert) as well as the very opportunity to hear these works live, certainly is worth braving sub-zero temperatures.

There is no String Quartet that thinks itself greater than the Emerson String Quartet. Admittedly Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Duttion, and David Finckel have had unprecedented success for a chamber group – and many recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (and a few Grammys and Gramophone Awards) to show for it. That said, they are not everyone’s favorite and often cited for a distinct lack of warmth or passion in their playing. Often they are more likely impress than endear. With Quartet No.1 op.49 they did neither. Curiously underplayed, almost laconic, and – most unusual for these four perfectionists – with pitch oddities, they played this 1948 work (Shostakovich started late with string quartets and although this first one was just supposed to be a test run, it is extraordinary, indeed!) with routine; presented it, but didn’t live it.

The gentle tock-tock-tock opening of Quartet No.7 was more convincing: calm and with single instruments shining through the sparse writing of the Allegretto. Following the haunting Lento, the third movement’s Allegro-Allegretto opened with an appropriate hollow-metallic atmosphere – its frenzied continuation before the quasi-Bachian, and then ironic, final elements was impressive in its precision.

Quartet No.5, its three movements played attacca (i.e. without pause between them), has a typical Shostakovich-like ‘strive’n’drive’ attitude in the Allegro non troppo while its motor was kept running by the Mr. Dutton’s viola (no audible or visible effects from his torn rotator cuff any more). The thin Andante middle movement, almost sweet (except in Shostakovich there is always something eerie in the slow movements), was perhaps the best moment of the evening’s performance. The ensemble work was flawless and its mood hit just right and – together with the third movement – made for a promising conclusion to this first of three exciting nights.

The Emerson String Quartet’s award winning (live!) Shostakovich Cycle has been reissued by DG for the Centenary. When it came out, it was the only complete modern cycle on a big label and it blew people away for its painfully acute precision and cleanliness. It competed only with the aged Fitzwilliams cycle on Decca and the spottily available second cycle of the Borodin Quartet (variously available on Melodiya, EMI, BMG and currently out of print.) If you can somehow get your hands on that Borodin cycle, do it. It’s a set of such a quality, it could make thieves out of honest men. Warmth and Russian flair, sometimes raw, sometimes sweet but always with pure emotions... all this is of paramount importance in these works and few quartets knew or know them better than the Borodin. The Quintet together with a certain Sviatoslav Richter also sweetens the deal. The Emerson set's assets, however, are no longer quite as impressive as the competition has increased manifold. Now there are the Brodsky Quartet cycle on Warner Classics, the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos (the same company also re-issues the first Borodin cycle, recorded before quartets 14 and 15 were composed), the St. Petersburg Quartet on hyperion, Brilliant Classics’ acclaimed Rubio Quartet cycle, the Danel Quartet (on Fuga Libera), Shostakovich Quartet (re-issued on Regis), the Eder on Naxos, and the Manhattan String Quartet cycle on Ess.a.y Recordings. You can find any range of technical precociousness and perfection coupled with different levels of gutsy, emotional playing. Top recommendations are (if you can’t find “Borodin II”) the Rubio, Danel, Shostakovich, and Borodin I cycles.

See also: Mandelring String Quartet in Shostakovich

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