There’s always something special about the Emerson String Quartet’s perennial visit to Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, but they overdid themselves this year in two concerts, joining forces with friends like musician-composer Thomas Adès and actors David Strathairn and Jay O. Sanders, one dead writer (Anton Chekhov), one living playwright (James Glossman), a multimedia artist and scenic designer.
The subject of the first concert was Dmitri Shostakovich, no stranger to the Emerson String Quartet or to the Emerheads who come to their Ozawa and Jordan Hall concerts every year.
There is long-running commentary about composer Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin. Were the symphonic works too bombastic, too celebratory of the doctrinaire dictator? Or were they, particularly the ending of the Fifth Symphony, ironical digs at the stomp of Stalin?
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s previous artistic director, James Levine, wouldn’t play him at all. Current artistic director Andris Nelsons, on the other hand, is recording every one of them for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon (DG) label, some of them with the subtitle: “Under Stalin’s Shadow.”
It’s generally agreed, though, that it was in the string quartets that Shostakovich could let it all hang out, where he could express his anger and his despair at Stalin, if not at life itself, at the midpoint of the 20th century. His personal life — his marriages and his illnesses — wasn’t exactly a walk in Gorky Park, either.
Like Nelsons and the BSO, the Emersons are Shostakovich completists as they’ve recorded all 15 quartets.
Here they are in No. 10:
They've also collaborated in two dramatizations matching his music to his life. The second, “Shostakovich and the Black Monk — A Russian Fantasy,” came to Ozawa Hall Wednesday night. “The Noise of Time” played at the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts in Northampton in 2001. This one, co-created by Emerson violinist Philip Setzer and writer-director James Glossman, posits Shostakovich (Strathairn) as a heroic figure standing up to Stalin (Sanders) in word and music, specifically in the great 14th quartet. Of course, by the time it was written it wasn’t so hard standing up to the megalomaniac — he was dead.
So as in Tony Palmer's film “Testimony,” there’s a running dialogue between Stalin and Shostakovich, some in flashback, Stalin urging him to write Beethoven-like symphonies for the people and sneering at what he felt was the mediocrity of the “little quartets.” Like Hitler, he was no fan of modernist music.
“Shostakovich and the Black Monk” exists on three levels — there’s the intermittent performance of the quartet, the battle between Shostakovich and Stalin, and Shosty’s recital of Chekhov’s short story, “The Black Monk,” which he was interested in turning into an opera. With the Emersons in the foreground, the stories are illustrated by the video design of Jeff Knapp — waving rye fields, historical newspaper excerpts, Stalin’s ever-looming presence.
To the extent that the Emersons join in the story-telling, the performance is brilliant. Setzer turns over the first violin to Eugene Drucker (they alternate on first violin), making Drucker the first among totally-committed equals. I hadn't seen cellist Paul Watkins with the group before and there’s been some carping that he doesn’t fit in as well as David Finckel. Finckel had left to run the Chamber Music Center of Lincoln Center and about 57 other arts organizations, most with his wife, Wu Han.
Could’ve fooled me about Watkins. If the Emersons gravitate more toward elegance and subtlety than to the gritty playing of other quartets, Watkins is as elegant and soulful as his groupmates. The quartet begins like a jaunt in the country, but one that’s fraught with hidden danger — not unlike Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”
But there was plenty of that grit, too, particularly as the mood turns darker and the music more staccato, with the big-brother smile of Papa Joe beaming down on the proceedings, or Sanders bringing Stalin to life with his jovial sneering at Shostakovich’s more long-haired compositions. That sneering, obviously, did not have such jovial repercussions. The added dimension of the dramatization makes the quartet’s playing all the more riveting, even spine-tingling.
But when the Emersons put their bows down and the dramatization focuses on accusations between the composer and Stalin or the composer and his wives (there are four other actors), the acting becomes shrill and the dual stories get pretty lumpy.
And the Chekhov part of the show — that’s literally another story. It is described as a tale about madness and freedom. A young artist woos and marries a country girl while a monk, invisible to everyone but himself, urges him to strive for artistic greatness. The artist is clearly the Shostakovich figure, but is the Stalin figure the young woman’s father, who is something of a brute (a la Stalin) and who originally tries to get in the way of the marriage? Or is the monk a Stalin stand-in, leading him down the Faustian path to madness, again as in Stravinsky’s opera?
It adds a little subtlety and mystery to the proceedings, but it’s really the Emerson String Quartet who bring this marriage of music and biographical story-telling to life in a way that’s quite different from their recitals of the music, as superlative as that playing is. This performance lives in an even loftier, more substantial realm.
The Emerson collaboration is part of what makes the Tanglewood Music Festival feel like a festival, though it can often feel like a series of unrelated concerts. But when it can pull together people who wouldn't normally have the ability to tour together, then it can seem like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk at Newport.
That was kind of the feel when three-quarters of the quartet joined forces with Boston Symphony Orchestra artistic partner Thomas Adès on piano and Edwin Barker on double bass for a performance of Schubert's "Trout Quintet." Adès also accompanied the golden-voiced baritone Andrè Drucker in Schubert lieder. Drucker got the second half of the night off after taking first violin in contemporary composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's piece written for the Emersons last year, "Shroud."
The piece lived up to its name. If Schubert's music was a walk in the Berkshires tinged by melancholy and the beginning of Wednesday night's Shostakovich quartet was a walk in the country tinged by the psychic presence of the big bad wolf (Stalin) then Turnage sounded like sleeping off a bender on Boston Common.
What it was doing in a series of concerts this season titled "Schubert's Summer Journey" is beyond me. But the Trout was as warm as Turnage was cold, filled with high spirits and even a sense of humor. The audience's premature applause at the piece's false ending was met with an uh-uh-uh look from Watkins, who led the ensemble into the real ending, a fitting coda to the two-night residency.