Composers have always reserved the expression of their deepest, most personal feelings for the string quartet; Beethoven comes to mind, and more recently Alban Berg, Janácek, and, of course, Shostakovich, whose 15 quartets are an opaque, frequently encoded, almost autobiographical outpouring of the public and private agony endured by the creative artist under totalitarianism. Indeed, for years the political controversy surrounding his person obscured his stature as a composer. However, his quartets, thanks to their accessible musical language and powerful emotional appeal, soon gained a wide audience and are now among the acknowledged masterpieces of 20th-century chamber music.
The Emerson Quartet, committed champion of contemporary music, has just released the Shostakovich quartets on a five-disc set; chronologically arranged, they reflect his growing personal and political travail. The comparative serenity of the early quartets, indicating how he might have composed free of external pressure, soon gives way to increasingly bleak despair, culminating in the shattering, devastating final ones. The players seem to have a special affinity for these works and fully communicate their overwhelming emotional impact without becoming excessive or sentimental. They give each quartet its own distinct character and bring out the set's wildly changing moods, from sardonic, often grotesque irony bordering on desperation to profound sorrow and mournful lamentation. Recorded live at the Aspen Music Festival, the playing is superb, combining the excitement and spontaneity of a performance with utmost control and perfection; the ensemble is seamless, the sound beautiful, but not lush, varied and expressive. --Edith Eisler