Climbing Everest Barefoot: the Emerson String Quartet Page 2

Why Shostakovich?

"Back when we began the Beethoven cycle, someone asked us exactly the same question—'Why Beethoven?'—although the reasons there were very different," said violist Larry Dutton. "Many people knew the Beethoven quartets, many amazing musicians had recorded them, so our decision was based upon our need to confront those pieces. With Shostakovich, it's a little different. We love the music, of course, but it's not all that well-known, and perhaps our interpretations of it will make it possible for people who haven't heard it before to become Shostakovich listeners, which would be very gratifying."

"Shostakovich had a profound influence on the 20th century, both musically and politically," violinist Eugene Drucker maintains. "Those two categories overlap in this case—that's because he was under so much pressure for large portions of his career to somehow satisfy the demands of the cultural authorities in the Soviet Union to sound optimistic, to produce music of the masses, for the masses. I think he did that more through his symphonic works and his film scores. In the string quartets, perhaps, he was under a bit less scrutiny than in some of the larger works.

"That left him somewhat freer to explore all the possibilities of harmonic language. He found a way, within the constraints that were imposed upon him, to express the full range of emotion. He found a way also to express some particularly 20th-century kinds of feelings. Some of his music is full of intensity and extremes of harmonic tension that you don't associate with music from the previous century—although certainly there are moments in Beethoven and Wagner where the harmony seems pushed to the extreme. And Shostakovich was able to do that in what was basically a tonal language."

"At first, I'm not sure that all of us really 'got' Shostakovich,' Philip Setzer said. "I don't mean understanding the music, but understanding what the music was really all about. Shostakovich rarely wrote exactly what he meant, except when he was in great pain and expressing that. His humor is very dry and sarcastic. He'd say really outrageous things with a totally straight face, musically speaking.

"Then, there's the whole experience of performing Shostakovich. There are places where he creates a tremendous amount of tension; this is almost like Chekhov, where there are a lot of people on stage, but not much seems to be happening, and yet, if it's well-acted and well-directed, you can just feel the tension building. Shostakovich is like that—it's a very Russian thing—and you need an audience to create the silence that fully informs that tension.

"If you do Shostakovich well, it's in the music. A lot of times, you're just holding the note, there's a lot of silence, very little seems to be happening. You have to play it with a certain expectation, with a level of intensity of expectation, or it becomes a somewhat banal music. These pieces are very much like theater music—they affect the public deeply," Dutton said. "And the feeling in the hall became an element in our conception of the pieces, so we decided to include the public in our interpretation."

"We've noticed, over the last few years, that Shostakovich has an intense visceral impact upon audiences," added Drucker. "Certain parts of the music actually seem to require an audience to work properly. You can almost imagine different types of lighting, for his intensely desolate, bleak moments when only one or two instruments are playing—you can almost imagine the lights very low onstage, and then a big burst of light as you have a tremendous climax that he's been building up to. And the sustained attention of the audience is palpable. The situation we had in Aspen enabled us to employ that dramatic tension, and the excitement in the audience—you can almost see it in the playback at times."

Is this why the group risked recording a major cycle live—to capture the thrill of an audience discovering one of the 20th century's most affecting voices?

"We essentially have the attitude that a lot of people climb Mount Everest, so we're going to climb it barefoot," quipped cellist David Frankel. "We considered it a challenge that would deliver an intensity that would be audible—and we were right, and we're excited about that. I think this sounds quite different from our other recordings.

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