Self-portrait of the artist

The tragic collision of art and politics in the life of Shostakovich found powerful expression in his work. The Emerson Quartet tell Rob Cowan about the moving effect of his quartets on audience and players

Winter coughers have ruined many a sublime adagio, but when the Emerson String Quartet brought Shostakovich's complete quartets to wintertime New York, a capacity-filled Alice Tully Hall became as a single listener rapt in concentration. The last quartet of all harbours six soul-searching adagios that follow each other in thoughtful succession. No one moved for the duration, and yet the post-concert discussion was an excited bustle of questions, observations and platitudes. I've never witnessed anything quite like it.

Back in London, on the eve of a parallel experience of the quartets shared between the Barbican and Wigmore Halls, the Emersons are again playing to sold-out houses. How did they plan the division of programmes? Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (the Emersons don't go in for leaders) toss the odds between chronological presentation and the dictates of specific acoustics. "We thought pretty carefully about where we might conclude the Wigmore part of the series," says Setzer. "Then we decided to start in an intimate space and move to the bigger venue for the last concerts. Our third programme ends with the famous Eighth Quartet, so you see it works out perfectly."

Playing the works as a closely knit sequence is another boon, especially if you intend to hold the thread of Shostakovich's autobiographical "storyline". Virtually every quartet has a personal or political subtext. Indeed, some commentators have questioned whether musicians who were raised in relative comfort can understand the desperate conditions in which some of the works were first performed.

Drucker stresses the music's universality: "People go through a lot of pain in their own individual lives, even where they don't have to wait on breadlines for rations and endure bombings. I don't mean to say we can viscerally imagine what that's like, but if you've lost parents, and suffered through long illnesses with these people, then you relate on the most basic level to human pain - if pain is what's being expressed in the music. It doesn't ultimately matter about the specifics."

Setzer balks at the idea of excessive literalism, especially the notion that "'this note means that' - which in a way demeans art, makes it as if everything is a sort of musical code". He draws parallels with Stravinsky, who claimed mathematical origins for The Rite of Spring. "I'm sorry," laughs Setzer, "but I can't listen to The Rite as a mathematical 'working out'."

The programmatic elements in the quartets operate on various levels. Setzer points out that while four of Shostakovich's symphonies were written to commemorate events in the Russian Revolution ("though I'm not saying there isn't great music there, too"), his quartets are more personal, rather like intimate communications written to a friend. "Read his published letters and you recognise the same voice."

But the quartets do have their areas of protest. Violist Lawrence Dutton mentions the Eighth as significant: "It's got titles, and it has a dedication to the victims of Fascism and of war, but the more general picture is a lot bigger than that." Dutton quotes the terrors of war in more general terms and the various evils born of Stalin's regime, not to mention what happened to the Jews and to the Russian people in general. "In a way, you could even say the Eighth was Shostakovich's own obituary. There are three ways of looking at, say, the fourth movement: as machine-gun fire, as the KGB apprehending victims in a public place, or as the dreaded knocking on the door in the middle of the night. That's the beauty - and the horror - of it. And yet even if you don't know about any of that, the music is still devastating."

Audience reaction to the cycle has been consistently positive. Cellist David Finckel has been bowled over by "the relationship of the audience to the music, to what happens on stage. Every time we play any of these pieces, the effect is amazing. I mean the atmosphere, what people say to us afterwards, and what's written about the performance. It's all so significant and I can't think of a single other composer that I've played in the quartet where there has been such a consistent sense of discovery among us all. I hope our live recordings of the complete quartets, which Deutsche Grammophon has just released, will have the same effect on people."

Dutton attempts to place the Shostakovich quartets in a realistic historical perspective. "You could say that Bartók's quartets dominated - and to some extent reflected on - the first part of the 20th century, while Shostakovich lies right at the century's centre. True, he doesn't make it past the Cold War; but that's an incredible part of history."

Then there's the question of Schoenberg's four mature quartets: how do they stack up against Bartók and Shostakovich? Dutton leans back in momentary contemplation. "You know, I don't want to get nailed on this, but I'll take a chance. I adore a lot of Schoenberg, especially the String Trio. But now, I think that Shostakovich has become a far more important figure for the last century. Schoenberg started a revolution that went on for a long time and now it's dissolved. It got to the stage, towards the end of the Eighties, that audiences couldn't take any more tone rows."

Setzer takes the view that Schoenberg was a revolutionary first and foremost and that, like most revolutionaries (he cites the example of Karl Marx), he has become the victim of fanatical acolytes. "Right now tonal music is, let's say, 'in'. Composers are again trying to reach out to an audience. And I don't think it's a coincidence that Shostakovich's music is being accepted on every level - just because it's now 'cool' to write tonal music. There'll be another turn in the circle; Schoenberg will again be looked at, and the greatest of his works will be newly appreciated."

Now that the quartet has plumbed the depths of Shostakovich and Webern, perhaps Schoenberg will be next on its agenda. I sincerely hope so.

The Emerson Quartet's Shostakovich quartet cycle is shared between the Wigmore Hall, London W1 (tonight, 15 & 17 May, 020-7935 2141) and the Barbican, London EC2 (19 & 21 May, 020-7638 8891). David Finckel and Wu Han play Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov cello sonatas at the Wigmore Hall on 14 May