Stumbling over Shostakovich

The Emerson Quartet launched the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society’s 46th season with their customary perfection last Monday at Carnegie Music Hall, with quartets by Haydn (in “F major, Opus 74, No. 2”), Dvorák (“No. 14 in A-flat major, Opus 105”), and Shostakovich (“No. 14 in F-sharp major, Opus 142”).

The Emerson Quartet gave a refined performance of the Haydn. The Emersons had thought through thousands of details, resulting in a performance that had the ideal amount of weight and warmth. Their Dvorák was virtuosic, and they were rhythmic in their playing.

The Emerson Quartet’s performance of the Shostakovich quartet left something to be desired. It wasn’t ferocious enough; their performance didn’t have the same sort of depth as other ensembles. Pitches were pitches; they weren’t utterances, they weren’t dark glances. It was just sound.

But perhaps it’s not the Emerson Quartet’s fault. Shostakovich’s music is fraught with interpretive problems, and the classical music world still needs time to evaluate him.

Shostakovich’s violent and terror-filled music is an emotional anthology of the Soviet Union during his life, 1906–1975, and it is difficult to extract the music from the time period. The music should tell you everything the composer wanted to say; the biography shouldn’t matter, the piece shouldn’t need program notes. Good music doesn’t need to be explained in words.
Listening to the Emerson Quartet’s performance, though, the music lacked that emotional depth. Some people would argue that it’s not the Emerson Quartet’s fault — as we lose proximity to the Soviet Union, Shostakovich’s music loses its power because it so dependent on the associations with that dark time in history.

Audiences need to listen to Shostakovich’s music and decide whether the music stands by itself as a testament to the horrors of life in the Soviet Union, and whether or not musicians who haven’t experienced those horrors can express those emotions through music. This argument is difficult to assess, however, because many great interpreters of Shostakovich’s music weren’t just Russian, they were also some of the greatest players of their time. Mstislav Rostropovich was Russian, but he’s also widely acknowledged to be the greatest cellist of the second half of the 20th century.

In this particular concert, the Emerson Quartet’s performance fizzled more because of their playing than because Shostakovich’s music is losing its power. The group brought the same clean, detailed approach they applied to great effect in the Haydn to the Shostakovich quartet, which is an entirely different piece. The Emersons needed to cut loose, but unfortunately they did not.