LENOX -- During Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12 at Tanglewood Thursday night, a police car passed in the distance, siren wailing. Amid the music’s savagery and grief, the signal was an eerie reminder of Shostakovich’s constant fear of arrest and death under the brutal Communist regime.
The Emerson String Quartet brought the last five of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets to Ozawa Hall Thursday in a three-hour concert. The program and performances were a miracle of endurance, concentration and revelation.
They were also too much all at once -- too much physical strain, too much intensity, too much pathos. Breaking custom, the players sat rather than stood to get through the program. But those listeners who stayed to the end (there was a large exodus during the second intermission) were rewarded with a transcendent experience.
The last five Shostakovich quartets have often been compared to the last Beethoven quartets. With good reason. Both sets break new ground in form and look deeply inward as their aging creators -- Shostakovich in mortal fear of a visit by police --- confront the reality of death and, in the broadest possible sense, the ultimate Creator.
Formally, Shostakovich’s five range from one movement to six. Beethoven’s seven-movement No. 14 often seems near in form and spirit. Each Shostakovich work is obsessive, not only in its furies but in its use of motifs, usually three to five short notes that repeat mercilessly, staccato or stretched out into anguished cries.
The Emerson, which has recorded the Shostakovich cycle, is an ideal champion of these works. Its beautifully warm, blended sound provided relief in the contemplative passages and heightened the pathos of the grinding dissonances and savage outcries. As in Mahler, whom Shostakovich admired, the ugly becomes beautiful. Listening to these highly personal works became like eavesdropping.
The performances were marked by narrative drive. Disjunct elements -- the violent juxtapositions of No. 11, for example -- fitted together like reassembled pieces of a huge, shattered mirror.
In one of the most striking passages, violist Lawrence Dutton brought a sighing farewell to the ending of the long, single-movement No. 13. Behind his solo, the quiet tapping of the wood of a bow on a violin, then the cello, ticked like a clock measuring out the remaining days. In a rare moment of repose, the lighter No. 14 closed on a note of tranquility.
The last quartet, in six continuous movements, all adagio, resolved the evening’s tensions and torments. But for Shostakovich resolution came only in death. Completed a year before he died, the work descends into pure heartbreak, ending in a tremor of resignation.
Following custom, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer switched off in the leader’s position. On board for a year now, cellist Paul Watkins adds a luminous quality to the group’s tone.
Why listen to long stretches of heartbreak? Why, because we are human, of course. And because this was great music performed with great heart and commitment.