As the Russian patron saint of artists who create works of dissent under the noses of dictators, Shostakovich is a timely composer to turn to – more so than the Emerson Quartet can have imagined when they programmed a trio of London concerts featuring the first nine of his 15 string quartets.
The Emersons, who have announced they will retire as a quartet in October 2023, have forged a strong connection with Shostakovich’s music over the past four decades. Still, on this occasion that affinity took a little while to show. The Quartet No 1, always one of the briefest and sunniest of the 15, began with the texture well-blended to a fault and some of the tuning unclear, and with the first violinist, Eugene Drucker, rarely singing out above the rest. Things began to spark with the Quartet No 2; from the folksy opening melody onwards Drucker’s playing had more heft, and in the first movement the others lent the music an insistent swing. Everyone’s playing seemed to take on more character – even that of cellist Paul Watkins, who had provided the most distinctive voice in No 1. By the time Lawrence Dutton’s viola line was climbing up through the final chords of the work, the performance had taken on a persuasive intensity.
That feeling continued after the interval into the Quartet No 3, written in 1946. This was where the concert caught fire. Now it was Philip Setzer in the first violinist’s chair, with Drucker playing second; Setzer dispatched the opening theme with an easy presence, without the laboured detail that can make Shostakovich’s chirpy melodies seem so arch. Here was the crispness and intention that had been missing in No 1. Belligerence was followed by lamenting, and it added up to a moving performance of a powerful response to war.
Rounding off a heartfelt speech at the end, Drucker spoke of how Shostakovich’s music could perhaps be looked to right now for solace and meaning. Still, it was J S Bach the players turned to for their brief encore, his music as ever offering the possibility of consolation and equilibrium.