SHOSTAKOVICH: The 15 String Quartets. Adagio (Elegy) after Katherina's arias from Scene 3 of Lady Macbeth from the District of Mtsensk, Op. 22. Allegretto (Polka) arranged for String Quartet from The Age of Gold, Op. 22
Emerson String Quartet
Deutsche Grammophon 463 284 (5 discs)  [F]  [DDD]  TT: 75:26; 76:57; 77:56; 68:32; 60:38

I wrote at some length last year about London's reissue on six midprice CDs (boxed, with excellent annotations) of the Fitzwilliam Quartet performances of this cornerstone literature. Those were analog recordings from the 1970s, with the cachet of having been coached by the composer before his death in 1975. A colleague reminded me since that the British group disbanded a few years later, as if they'd been brought together by some Greater Force to create that specific testament. Near the end I wrote that the Emerson Quartet had completed an overview of these same 15 works (plus two brief, nonessential fillers). While their feat has been contained on five discs, the Fitzwilliams remain unbeatable in Y2K from a dollar standpoint.

Lots of woodshedding went into these Emerson recordings made at Aspen, Colorado, over the course of three summers -- 1994, 1998 and 1999. Max Wilcox was the producer and Nelson Wong the engineer of Nos. 11-15 during July and August of the first year. Da-Hing Seetoo produced and engineered the rest: Nos .6-10 two years ago, Nos. 1-5 last year. Aspen's wood- paneled Harris Concert Hall yielded up a sonic consistency that is astonishing; there simply are no seams despite the presence of audiences. Had Deutsche Grammophon had omitted audience response after the few quartets that end ebulliently -- "bravos" after Nos. 12, even yells after No. 9! -- the project might have avoided a documentary patina that subtracts from, not adds to, an often compelling documentation. But not the sum is not, I regret to write, superior to the best completes from the past, distant as well as more recent. And I continue to pledge allegiance to the Fitzwilliam four, who subsumed themselves in the composer's vision, often of the Apocalypse.

The Emersons -- as if nudged by a longtime annotator, whose typographical curlicues tend to befog any literary through-line -- put special emphasis on Shostakovich's pro-Semitism, as reflected in allied works either by period or by association. This revisionism, when it goes unchecked, transforms some of the music into klezmer, which may be a novelty but is not a bonus. In fact it verges on trivialization, which means that the players' virtuosity must argue their specious ntellectual option. Since the completion of this project, the Emersons have been joined by a New York theatrical producer who "stages" concert performances of certain of the quartets, in which shadow-actors borrow the quartet players' identities to "explain" and/or propagandize Shostakovich. Implicitly this downgrades the music's ability to speak for itself, which is presumptive at the very least, willful at worst.

That said, there is some very beautiful playing to be heard here -- outstandingly so in Quartets No. 3 and 14 -- although these performances tend to be fraught and driven. Methinks they doth emote too much, and sometimes too briskly. Bartók's  formal rigors and stylistic objectivity in his six quartets had a salubrious channeling effect on the Emersons in their superb recording. Contrarily, Shostakovich's deliberate discursiveness (on the surface at least) has invited excesses, some of them irrelevant. One comes away with a feeling of Agenda rather than a subsumation in his dark world of threats and ironies.

It will be interesting to see how this starkly illustrated package (the designer got it right) sells in a classical market alleged to be dying worldwide.