Dmitri Shostakovich once told a friend that he planned to compose 24 string quartets, one in each of the major and minor keys. He completed only 15, but they span his entire mature period as a composer, from 1938 to 1974, the year before he died. The Carducci Quartet scored quite a coup in August in London, when it performed the entire set in a single day, marking the anniversary of Shostakovich’s death. This week, the ensemble is performing the quartets in chronological order but on two days, one week apart, a cycle that opened Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection. (“Shostakovich 15: Part 2” is Nov. 22.)
Shostakovich’s quartets form a sort of diary of the composer’s life, as the Soviet Union survived Stalinist repression, German invasion, Khrushchev’s thaw and Brezhnev’s stagnation. The Emerson Quartet gave the last performance of the complete cycle in Washington, in four concerts spread out over more than a year at the Kennedy Center. On Sunday, to hear the first eight quartets in two concerts with an hour interval in between was an intense, even overwhelming, experience.
Overall, the group took a muscular approach, missing some of the composer’s ironic gestures by setting moderate tempos too fast. Heavy vibrato, especially from the first violin and cello, occasionally obscured the center of the pitch. The strain of overplaying, in terms of volume and tempo, was more pronounced in the first concert, when first violinist Matthew Denton broke a string during the second quartet.
Control of these issues made the fourth, fifth and eighth quartets the highlights of the two concerts. Especially when looking for a long, dramatic arc over the entire cycle, the most violent sounds should be kept in reserve for major climaxes. Ending the day with the eighth quartet formed a natural high point — the piece roils with Shostakovich’s name rendered as a melody, as well as with quotations from his own music.
Downey is a freelance writer.
Carducci Quartet, Shostakovich 15: Part 2 Nov. 22 at 12:30 and 4 p.m. at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. www.phillipscollection.org.