I had the very good fortune to attend two of the four concerts the Jerusalem Quartet gave in New York's Alice Tully Hall last week, where it played the full fifteen quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich as one of the key events of the 2012-2013 season at the Chamber Music Society.
It's hard to put in words what an outstanding job Wu Han and David Finckel (cellist of my favorite string quartet, the Emerson, for a few more months), the wife-and-husband team at the artistic helm of CMS, as well as their whole team have done in making such a high-quality event possible:
- a dedicated multi-media website with biographical information on Shostakovich, a timeline to put the concerts in context and, most importantly, a vast repository of audio notes, audio clips, lecture videos, performance video and - my favorite - a "follow the score" tool where the viewer can follow along with the musical score to the first movement of the 8th quartet.
- lectures by on Shostakovich's life and works, as well as more targeted lectures focused on the program of each concert, by the excellent Michael Parloff. (The 2 hour-lecture on Shostakovich's life and works was streamed online for free.)
Watch the Emerson String Quartet play the 3rd movement of String Quartet No 3 below (left), and Michael Parloff's lecture on the life and works of Shostakovich (right). You can watch the other Parloff lectures on YouTube in their entirety.
I attended the first and third concerts, where the Jerusalem Quartet presented Quartets No 1, 5, 6, 12 and 3, 7, 13, 14, respectively. The Jerusalem Quartet got standing ovations both nights I was there, and I have to say they were amply deserved. Here is a video of them playing Quartet No 3, courtesy of Vimeo. A video of them playing Quartet No 8 is also available from the website.
I had felt compelled to come because of Shostakovich's personal story and the difficult line he had to toe in the middle of Stalinism to be able to compose and have his music heard while living in times of terrible dictatorship. (This is a topic I'm particularly interested in because of my forthcoming novella and the general theme of my fiction writing.)
I bought the box set of the Emerson String Quartet playing the full Shostakovich quartets, and will definitely get the recording by the Jerusalem Quartet, which covers Quartets 1, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 11. I've listened to the box set (5 CDs) in its entirety already, and the quartets are simply spell-binding. There is none of the dissonance you hear sometimes in the symphonies of twentieth-century composers - frankly I like Shostakovich's quartets even more than I like his symphonies, but I have to admit I hadn't been as spellbound when I'd bought this after reading Music for Silenced Voices by Wendy Lesser. So the talent of the Emerson String Quartet (in recordings) and the Jerusalem Quartet (in live performances) probably played an important role in my discovering new favorite works.
Here are some other albums and books I own about Shostakovich. (I'll spare you my detailed opinion on each, but feel free to leave a comment if you're interested in hearing more!)
I also have the CDs on the life and music of Shostakovich by the always informative Robert Greenberg of the Teaching Company. You can tell that when I'm passionate about something (in this case, the way an artist hung on to his ability to create masterpieces in spite of harrowing circumstances), I don't do things halfway.
Finally, I also got the poster of the cycle at the Chamber Music Society, and I can't find a good picture file to show you what it looks like, but it is depicted on the first page of this PDF document. Nice, uh?
If you've read that far, you probably have an interest in Shostakovich too, and I highly recommend the Emerson & Jerusalem recordings of the quartets. I haven't heard the Jerusalem recording itself, but if it's half as good as the live performances, it'll be worth every penny. And of course, please consider subscribing to the Chamber Music Society's 2013-2014 season - it is easily the best chamber music program in the nation!