Ever since Beethoven left us his 16 string quartets, listeners have turned to the genre to find a composer's innermost thoughts. You'd be hard pressed to find feelings further removed from a composer's public persona than those of Shostakovich. His symphonies and operas are like the chapters in his "official" biography -- usually indicating how far in or out of favor he was with Stalin -- but the chamber music, frequently written "for the drawer," as he put it, is his personal journal.
It is tempting though ultimately unfair to compare the Emerson String Quartet's interpretations with versions by the Borodin, Shostakovich or Fitzwilliam Quartets. Those ensembles not only got the Stalinist references, they lived the life -- or, in the case of the Fitzwilliam, at least worked directly with the composer. But for these quartets to survive as repertory pieces, rather than journalism, they require both a working knowledge of the composer's intentions and a healthy distance from them.
The Emerson Quartet fits the bill perfectly. Though supportive of new music, they are less interested in advocacy than in creating perspective -- for creating connections between, say, Haydn and Bartók on the musical continuum. In Shostakovich's music, they see Stalin's name carved on every tree, but never lose sight of the forest. Recorded live at the Aspen Music Festival, their performances make deep emotional connections without bleeding into excessive sentimentality, remaining true both to the composer and to their own audiences.
Shostakovich didn't start exploring the quartet form until he was in his 30s, so unlike Beethoven, his 15 quartets change less in style than in content. The Emersons relate the comparative freedom of the early works, cranking the levels of sorrow and despair as the cycle progresses, until the final four quartets, which take on an aura of serenity. Throughout the cycle, the four musicians turn moods on a dime -- from bitter irony to sweet melancholy -- making each piece a world entirely its own.