Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 117
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major, Op. 118
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, Op. 133
Yesterday was a historic day of joyful celebration for most of the country after the American people decisively elected their first African-American president and, of no lesser importance, their first competent president in too many years. Granted, the bar had been set pretty low, but Barak Obama rocked regardless. As the abysmal legacy of his predecessor reaches new lows every day, I certainly don’t envy the weight on his apparently solid but nevertheless human shoulders. But no fear, apprehension, sarcasm or cynicism is allowed these days as I’m finally relishing this brand new feeling of being proud to be an American. (The possibility has only been there for not quite 4 years, but it sure seemed like an eternity).
As History takes its course, the music shall go on as well. Last night I was in the smaller Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center for a concert by the Emerson String Quartet. By all accounts one of the very premier chamber music ensemble worldwide, they’re more than a sure value when it comes to this intimate musical form, and their performance of some of Shostakovich’s late quartets yesterday was yet another living proof that they more than deserve their pristine reputation. A well-oiled and finely-tuned music machine after more than three decades of collaborating together, they effortlessly churned out notes after notes for two blissful hours.
The first two quarters were different enough in mood to easily be told apart. The uninterrupted five movements of the Ninth Quartet allowed for their seriousness and sophistication to continuously and impeccably flow. Written in less than a month and dedicated to his wife, this quartet carries his signature austerity, but on a much smaller scale than in most of his other works. On the other hand, the Tenth Quartet had much lighter and sunnier vibes, which formed an appreciated counterbalance to the previous one. All is not happy-go-lucky, far from it, but the piece was positively optimistic, even coming close to being openly romantic thanks to a couple of lovely melodies. The final upbeat notes wrapped up this unexpected but welcome work.
The Quartet No 11 was another good surprise, but of another nature. Written while the composer was suffering from serious health problems and undergoing various treatments, dedicated to the memory of Vassily Shirinsky, violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet, this piece is a kind of playful reflection on death (yes!) The seven short movements played without a pause were eccentric and personal, full of paradoxes and complexities, and ultimately deeply moving. After these fireworks, the Quartet N0 12, dedicated this time to Dmitri Tsyganov, leader of the Beethoven Quartet, was a further exploration of the subject of death, occasionally surreal, occasionally downright funereal, and the final note of the concert was a decidedly dissonant and resounding conclusion of an absolutely epic performance.