For most of his life, Shostakovich's environment allowed no safety from petty bureaucratic whims that could result in banishment or liquidation. Twice he was denounced by the Soviet musical Establishment, first in 1936 by an article in Pravda (said to have been instigated by Stalin), then after a semi-"rehabilitation" for his supposedly patriotic World War II Seventh Symphony, again in 1948 for musical crimes against the so-called Zhdanov Doctrine, which attempted to enlist all Russian culture in the anti-capitalist struggle at a particularly tense period of the Cold War. The story that he slept outside in the hallway of his apartment building so it wouldn't disturb his family when he was arrested in the night may or may not be apocryphal, but it is symbolically truthful about the conditions under which he worked.
I am fascinated by most of Shostakovich's symphonies, for somewhat the same reason as I am by Mahler's: the extraordinary range of moods and the remarkable orchestration. Both convey, at times, an overwhelming angst (and I mean that not in its current, casual usage, but in the sense of deep existential fear), but there is also sarcasm, nostalgia, tenderness. Compared with Shostakovich, Mahler had an easier time of it outwardly, although he could never count on being socially secure in the German-Austrian milieu ("He was born a Jew, you know"). But Shostakovich inhabited a Soviet madhouse.
Another difference is that, unlike Mahler, Shostakovich wrote a good deal of chamber music, including 15 string quartets. By their nature quartets can't offer as diverse a sound world as a symphony. Nevertheless Shostakovich showed how much variety of emotion quartets can signify, not just between them but within a single one.
The quartets are so brilliant that they seem almost performance-proof, but an exceptional reading is an overwhelming experience. My first exposure to the quartets was provided by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet in a 1970s disc — I still have it (in a CD version), and it's fine. Much later I acquired the entire set of 15 by the Emerson String Quartet, splendidly played and full of insights.
Recently, I happened to find the Borodin String Quartet disc of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Quartets. Although I had the Borodin's set of Tchaikovsky quartets, which is as good as any I've heard, I was unprepared for the shock and awe of hearing them take on Shostakovich.
The Borodin is the oldest more-or-less continuously active string quartet in the world, founded in 1945. It has undergone personnel changes, of course, but this recording, originally on the Russian Melodiya label, surely predates the current line-up.
I think the Borodin group reveals the inner meaning of numbers 5, 6, and 7 at a still greater level than even the Fitzwilliam or Emerson. Probably the players on this recording had themselves experienced the Great Terror or its only slightly softer aftermath. It allowed them to get inside the notes. They could feel what Shostakovich had felt, as perhaps none of us can fully if we've been spared from life in a totalitarian society.
A quick check at Amazon.com and elsewhere on the Web indicates that this disc (and I assume there were others in the series) is no longer available.
And that is very unfortunate. Because these performances by the Borodin are among the most astonishing I have ever heard, not just of Shostakovich, not just of string quartets, but of anything.
These performances capture the damaged but brave character of the composer's genius. They visit every point on the emotional compass.
Whether or not Shostakovich's music contained coded protests against the Stalinist regime, a controversial point, they deliver a painfully vivid impression of life under tyranny — or, in World War II, a clash of tyrannies. Shostakovich, using four instruments, has created sound portraits that include the ominous and threatening; shrieking, gibbering fear; exhaustion; and life that for so many during Stalin's reign was bleached of all the finer sentiments, leaving only the desire to survive, and sometimes not even that.
Shostakovich conveyed the horror he experienced honestly, but if that were all there was in his music, it would be unbearable. Incredibly, he remained at heart a romantic. He found interludes of peace when there was no peace. Almost all these quartets (and the same could be said of the later symphonies) have moments of reflection and yearning. (6 and 7 on this disc are among the less traumatic.) He never gave up on beauty. He searched for, and found, diamonds in the rubble.
Possibly a purist reading the scores would accuse these performances of extreme expressionism. But if ever extreme expressionism was called for, it's in Shostakovich. I cannot imagine an objective, "moderate" reading getting to the heart of these works.
It's all here, as close as music can ever take us to knowing what it was like to serve the Muse under the shadow of death. There's no surprise that the music revisits so much anguish. What is uplifting is how much of that seemingly unconquerable Russian sentiment and even nobility is also to be found. Listen to the long, dreamlike episodes of grace and beauty: slow dancing on the grave of Mother Russia.