“It’s been a journey,” is an empty expression, often quoted by celebrities as they’re booted off the latest reality TV programme. Yet it accurately summed up the experience of hearing all fifteen Shostakovich string quartets in a single day. What the experience was like for the Carducci Quartet, performers of this marathon feat on the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death, is anyone’s guess. Performed chronologically in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, The Globe’s candlelit Jacobean theatre, they made an astonishing impression in such concentrated form. Almost autobiographical, they chart an intensely personal journey through Shostakovich’s output.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse © Pete Le May
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
© Pete Le May

Our day was structured into four concerts, a brief interval inserted into each, with a break of an hour in between. Close on seven hours of concentrated listening on the cramped, hard bench seating of the theatre added an element of endurance test not entirely out of keeping with the gritty, austere character of the music. Illuminated by six candelabra, the Carduccis kept us enthralled, making light of the physical demands placed on both performers and audience.

When tackling a marathon, beginners are counselled against the dangers of setting off too hard, too quickly. There was absolutely no question of the Carduccis pacing themselves! The First Quartet may sound spring-like and trouble-free, but when one considers that it comes after Pravda’s condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, it shows Shostakovich was already learning to “play the game”. By the time the Carduccis hit the Second, all cylinders were firing at a frightening degree of intensity, which they maintained all day.

Highlights included a tremendous performance of the String Quartet no. 3 in F major, a “war quartet” given subtitles which the composer later removed. There was playful treatment of the first movement. The Allegro non troppo third movement was fabulously aggressive, full of iron pizzicatos and flying bow-hair. The leader, Matthew Denton, provided strong, wiry tone (occasionally a touch parched at stratospheric heights), leaping from his chair at several points during the klezmer touches in the finale. This was high octane, turbo-charged playing.

The Carducci Quartet © Tom Barnes
The Carducci Quartet
© Tom Barnes

The Fifth Quartet, composed just after Stalin’s death in 1953, saw the first appearance of the composer’s monogram – the DSCH motto (in a permutation, here introduced by the viola, of B-C-D-E flat). This motto represented the composer’s defiance against tyranny, also heard in the Tenth Symphony from the same year. The DSCH motto reappears in various guises through the next three quartets, until becoming the pillar on which the magnificent Eighth Quartet rests. The Carduccis played the Eighth for all its tormented worth, almost an autobiographical suicide note, the three note “knocking at the door” representing the calls made to many artists in the middle of the night, who then mysteriously disappeared.

Other moments seared into my memory include the pithy, biting Seventh, the William Tell galop references in the Ninth, the glassy sul ponticello effects of the Tenth, and Eoin Schmidt-Martin’s extended viola solo and the spectral ending of the Thirteenth. Throughout, cellist Emma Denton impressed, the growling bass engine of the foursome, her hair tossing and tangling in the cello’s tuning pegs. She also brought the Fifth to a balmy close. Michelle Fleming provided glowing warmth to the significant second violin solo contributions to the Eleventh, the later quartets occupying a world with a more astringent sound. 

The intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is unforgiving in terms of intonation slips and scuffs, but it mattered little in such flinty repertoire. As they grew accustomed to the acoustics of a nearly-full playhouse, the players recalibrated their dynamic range to find a quieter intensity in the later quartets, culminating in an utterly absorbing account of the introspective Fifteenth – a remarkable work in six movements, each of them slow – to bring the day to a hushed close.

Leader Matthew Denton gave several spoken introductions to the music, anecdotes often light-hearted in tone but necessary given the appalling nature of the programme book, which contained only the briefest of essays about the works. For such an immersive experience, better documentation was essential. Perhaps the audience had anticipated this state of affairs – I spotted CD booklets, essays printed off the internet and copies of Testimony being consulted. The level of audience concentration – and consideration – was truly admirable. Yes, an endurance test for all concerned, but it was a privilege to share their journey.