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In Shostakovich’s career, pockmarked with forced commissions, attempts to placate Soviet officials and humiliating bouts of censorship, his string quartets occupy a special place. Many critics have likened them to a confessional into which the composer confided the fears and hopes he had to suppress in public. But most of all, the 15 quartets represent the music Shostakovich wanted to write at a given moment.

The current survey of the complete cycle by the Jerusalem Quartetpresented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall offers a look at how that music changed over four decades. The first concert on Sunday afternoon encompassed the Haydn-like optimism of the Neo-Classical Quartet No. 1 in C (1938), the abstract ruminations of the Quartet No. 5 in B flat, the Quartet No. 6 in G (1956) with its gorgeous grief-stricken Lento and the Quartet No. 12 in D flat, in which Shostakovich plays with 12-tone motifs.

The Jerusalem Quartet played it all with equal passion and a tender sense of ownership. Three of its members were born in the former Soviet Union (the two violinists, Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, and the cellist Kyril Zlotnikov), and the California-born violist, Ori Kam, has Russian roots. In their program notes the players recall studying with friends, colleagues and students of Shostakovich: "This music seems to tell ‘our’ story."

Then again the quartets are rarely story driven. Instead Shostakovich uses them to investigate musical forms and their expressive potential with scientific curiosity. How do you write a waltz so that it spins from wistful to sinister in a few bars? When do the repetitions in a passacaglia feel oppressive rather than reassuring? How do you treat a 12-tone theme so that the listener develops a fond familiarity with it?

In the process Shostakovich distills moments of lyricism, melancholy or heroism, but they tend to be fleeting, slipping back into abstract passages more preoccupied with the beauty of structure and color. The Jerusalem Quartet brought a beautiful sense of flexibility to these cinematic changes of light and shadow that require subtle adjustments of tone and timbre. Mr. Pavlovsky, playing the first violin part, produced a veiled, floating sound for the passages where the musical material is guarded and unsure. When called for, his sound grew rich and charismatic. Mr. Kam’s viola glowed in the solo that opens the second movement of the first quartet. The generosity of Mr. Zlotnikov’s playing breathed warmth into the soulful cello solo in the Quartet No. 6.

In Shostakovich’s quartets any player can be corralled into the rhythm section at a moment’s notice, and the Jerusalem players rose to the challenge with a crisp sense of time, marking rhythms with juicy pizzicatos or cricketlike chirps.

With the exception of the first, none of the quartets in Sunday’s program had ever been performed at the Chamber Music Society before. That the concert and part of the remaining series are sold out shows how keen audiences are to see Shostakovich up close and personal.

The Shostakovich Cycle continues this week at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center,, (212) 875-5788; limited availability.

March 18, 2013

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