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Shostakovich's Tenth Quartet was given its premiere in Moscow on November 20, 1964. Shostakovich dedicated it to one of his closest musical friends, the composer Moisey Vainberg, who had also incurred the perilous wrath of Stalin. (Vainberg had been imprisoned in 1953, the year of Stalin's death.) At first glance, the familiar four-movement outline of the quartet follows a long-accustomed pattern. Yet much of the impact of this music comes from the larger tensions Shostakovich manages to generate across the work.

The quartet begins almost surreptitiously, with a violin solo that seems detached, caught in a game of casual questioning. When the ensemble enters in response, it does so with a rhythm that often occurs as an obsessive idée fixe for Shostakovich: short-short-long (known in poetic meter as an "anapest"). Eventually a more soulful melody occurs in the cello, followed by another flight of the solo violin, angular and upping the ante on that initial impression of detachment. From this abundance of material, we seem to be set up for a large-scale event, rich in the conflict and synthesis of development. But Shostakovich simply recapitulates what's happened (spicing it up with some eerie sul ponticello harmonizing), while the anapestic trance carries through to a deceptive resolution.

Deceptive, that is, since the whole opening movement turns out to be a curtain-raiser for the ferocity of the second. Its aggressive rhythmic accents, attacks, and muscle-flexing ensemble take us by surprise: Now we encounter a conflict between the relaxed atmosphere of the beginning and its antithesis. Shostakovich's furious, motoric ostinatos convey a sense of chase that becomes ever rougher and more distorted, until nothing but the collective of the ensemble is left.

The Adagio follows with a set of variations on a threnody-like, full-throated A-minor melody in the cello, which functions as a passacaglia. An astonishing final set of harmonic transformations segues (again catching us by surprise) directly into the lengthy final movement. A new attitude of jauntiness - heard as a viola solo - ensues, with a rondo-like rhythm that seems to promise a light-hearted cap to the quartet. But systematically Shostakovich retraces the journey already taken through the entire work, bringing back the thematic material of each of the preceding movements in succession, against powerful counterpoint from the "rondo" theme. Finally, the themes from the first movement seem to duel with the latter until the music fades into the same quizzical atmosphere with which the quartet began.

This furnishes a good example of the temptation to reduce this music to hidden "programmatic" meanings: an allegory of the individual beaten down by the inhumane forces of the State, a pattern that is repeated endlessly in a "cycle." Such reductions tend to obscure the musical and artistic experience that a performance entails, as if they could explain away the profound sense of ambivalence the composer paradoxically generates from a marvelous internal coherence. (The same goes for trying to read the later quartets as a kind of medical diary, mirroring his increasing experience of physical frailty.)

- Thomas May is a senior editor at Amazon.com. His book Decoding Wagner has just been published by Amadeus Press.