If it's February, it's the Jerusalem Quartet. If it's March, it's the Emerson. There's likely to be no shortage of Shostakovich quartets in this anniversary year, but how they are presented will vary. The Jerusalem at the Wigmore, playing eight of the 15 quartets, have opted to pick and mix; the Emerson, playing all the Shostakovich quartets (at Queen Elizabeth Hall), will play them chronologically.
Shostakovich came late to quartet-writing - the authorities saw quartets as bourgeois élitism, and it wasn't until a thaw that he took up the medium. In 1938, he wrote the String Quartet No 1 in C, between his Fifth and Sixth symphonies.
The Jerusalem Quartet began their series of three concerts with this quartet. The opening could almost be "wrong-note" Schubert, it's so sweet and smooth, with the Jerusalem adding space and subtle rubato. The second movement, a wistful set of variations, brought wonderfully nuanced phrasing, the quartet rapidly catching Shostakovich's mood changes. The composer initially considered the Allegro finale for the first movement: it seems impossible to believe that he could have opted for so jolly an opening statement.
Thirty years later came the Twelfth quartet. Although dedicated to the first violin of the Beethoven Quartet - who premiered virtually all of Shostakovich's quartets - it's the cello that heads up the action. Despite using a 12-tone row, the music resists dissonance, a ponderous, meandering figure in the first movement reminiscent of Pimen's music in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. What variety of colour the Jerusalem Quartet brought, characterfully underplaying the music; the cellist Kyril Zlotnikov was mesmerising in his improvisatory lead into the adagio section.
And then the great Eighth quartet. Written within three days, the devastation of Dresden was a catalyst. Death haunts the work: "If I die some day, it's hardly likely that anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself," said Shostakovich. Permeated with self-quotation, sweetness, anger and anguish, the Eighth can scarcely be applauded. It came slowly. Rightly so.Reuse content