Shostakovich composed his A Major String Quartet in the last year of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, and it shares with his "war" symphonies an incredible intensity, a tremendous expressivity, and an indomitable will. Beethoven composed his C-sharp Minor String Quartet in the last years of his life, and it resembles his other late quartets in its overwhelming concentration, overpowering spirituality, and irresistible urge to rise above the limits of this life. From the huge sonorities of the opening movement to the enormous lines of the closing movement, Shostakovich's A Major Quartet is a monument to suffering, strength, and endurance. From the melancholy fugue of the opening movement to the convulsive rhythms of the closing movement, Beethoven's C-sharp Minor Quartet is a tombeau to hope, an adieu to life, and a hymn to transcendence.
The Emerson's recording of Shostakovich's A Major Quartet is a shade mannered and a little forced, and its recording of Beethoven's C-sharp Minor is a bit lethargic in the slow movements and a tad rushed in the fast movements. But the group's previous local performances have often been both more technically exciting and more interpretively convincing than its recordings. One could reasonably trust that the Emerson's performances of Tower, Beethoven, and Shostakovich here this month will be as just as exciting and as convincing.
[Originally published in September, 2004.]