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Emersons & Shostakovich at the Terrace

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 2, 2007

shostakovich_long_3W.jpgIntense, fiercely beautiful and almost shockingly intimate, the 15 string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich rank among the 20th century's most powerful works of art. Ambiguous, probing, constantly shifting, they move from ethereal loveliness to bitter satire with the quickness of a snakebite -- and often with the same heart-stopping effect.

The Emerson String Quartet has made a specialty of this extraordinary music, performing the full cycle on several occasions and releasing a standard-setting recording of the complete works. So it was no surprise that the Terrace Theater was sold out this week for a series of three performances (covering the first eight quartets), which opened on Monday night with the Quartet No. 1.

esq_tux.jpgThe first isn't the most satisfying of the quartets; even Shostakovich once said that "it didn't turn out particularly well." But that didn't excuse a disappointing performance from the Emersons, who played with their fabled precision but not a lot more. Violinist Eugene Drucker led the group (playing in their trademark standing position, with cellist David Finckel on a small platform) in a professional but rather distant reading, and even the wonderfully Haydnesque finale fell flat. Throughout the Terrace, minds wandered.

Interest picked up considerably in the rest of the program, though. The Quartet No. 7 is a short but absolutely fascinating work, an enigmatic memorial that Shostakovich wrote to his first wife. And the Emersons explored it with a fine, intuitive touch, opening up its strange and heartbreaking landscapes with persuasive command. And the Quartet No. 5, which closed the program, was purely magnificent. Violinist Philip Setzer led the quartet in a passionate, headlong reading -- and you could not tear your ears away.

Posted on Wednesday, February 7, 2007 at 10:45AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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