No other composer had to endure pressure as Shostakovich did. It was written in his face, and rings through every bar of his music: pressure from the Soviets to stifle his voice, and inner pressure from that voice to be heard.
When politics made operatic work impossible he retreated into the intimacy of chamber music, embarking on the most majestic succession of string quartets since Beethoven’s. For the first concert in their cycle of these works, the Jerusalem Quartet gave us the first quartet plus the high-spirited “Elegy and Polka” and the “Piano Quintet Op 57”, for which they were joined by the great Elisabeth Leonskaja.
Shostakovich told his friends not to expect any special depth in his first quartet, which he described as ‘spring-like’, but the Jerusalems invested its first movement with a wan beauty, and its finale with whirling exuberance. Playing close together and producing a very concentrated sound, they found exactly the right arioso register for the Elegy, and gave the wrong-note Polka the red-nose treatment. In the Quintet, Leonskaja’s massive musical personality forced them to raise their game: the Fugue had Bachian grace, while the concluding movement became a riveting dialogue between piano and strings.
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