In a completely darkened hall with the barest of light on the performers, the Emerson String Quartet finished their complete cycle of Shostakovich's 15 quartets. That it was the end of a journey was palpable. The Emerson had chosen to play the cycle in chronological order rather than mixing and matching.
Over the five concerts in the space of a week, strict chronology within each programme of three quartets was not entirely observed; it would be musical madness to end a concert with the ninth quartet following the eighth.
But if justification were needed for playing chronologically, the final quartet provided it. It needs the preceding two quartets to reveal the logic in its extraordinary culmination.
It is almost as if Shostakovich is having an "out-of-body" moment. Life seems to flash by: fragmentary utterances, separateness, jokes gone, - although there is still time for a wistful waltz, a lullaby, hints of Schubert and Beethoven.
If I had had doubts about the Emerson style - a marked lack of corporate involvement; stunning absence of physical interaction; apparent dislocation between the two violins and the lower two strings; coldness of communication - they were completely dispelled in this performance.
The playing was utterly fantastic, each player individually and communally making complete sense of Shostakovich's disintegrated writing. Long solo spots allowed Lawrence Dutton (viola) and David Finckel (cello) to pour out their beautiful spun sound, wrenchingly in opposition to savage crescendi.
And as a whole, the Emerson brought the full panoply of colours - frozen non-vibrated sounds, thick pizzicato, tender tone, feral attack. "Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom," Shostakovich said of this quartet. A less likely outcome could scarcely have been imagined.
This series has sold out. It seems that Shostakovich is the zeitgeist of our time. Audiences have listened intently, even if riotous applause seemed out of place. The music denies applause and not always did the performers deserve it. But salvation came at the end.Reuse content