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Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartets Nos. 11 - 14 were each dedicated to a member of the Beethoven Quartet, his 13th, in 1970, to the ensemble's recently retired violist Vadim Borisovsky. Borisovsky's student Fyodor Druzhinin, in fact, called the piece "a hymn to the viola," whose searing solo line opens the piece and whose unnaturally high sustained note closes it. That opening line, built on a 12-tone row, progresses in tentative waves separated by ever-so-brief silences in which the soloist seems to be searching for direction. The compressed color and lack of a tonal center make clear from the outset that this is an intense work. The other instruments join in close rhythmic and melodic partnership, creating a kind of darker shadow behind the line before the texture opens up somewhat, without, however, losing intensity.

It soon becomes clear that the work's formal structure will not yield to casual identification. In spite of its 12-tone beginning, the piece is not systematically 12-tone. It falls into a loose three-part division within a large single movement: the outer sections, rhapsodic and viola-led; the middle, a scherzo. The scherzo is built on a three-note ostinato rhythm that originally pops up out of resonant sustained chords like a nervous itch; once underway all the musical elements reinforce its propulsive quality: rhythmic obsessiveness, fractured texture, generous use of pizzicato, and the use of bows tapping on wood. It gradually sputters out before yielding to the return of the opening material, with the viola again the predominant instrument. Here the 12-tone line seems even less anything that imposes structure on the music and even more something that eludes it. The bow tapping returns to lend a kind of otherworldly quality as the piece winds down to its conclusion, in which the viola leads the three higher instruments to end on a unison high B-flat. This completes two arcs: from low register to high, and from 12-tone to a single note.

Shostakovich has often served as a kind of blank slate onto which listeners have been able to project their own agenda - not only because the circumstances of his exterior life dovetail with the dominant ideological conflicts of the era but also because his musical vocabulary never seems to draw back into safely objective territory. The willingness to risk exposure is clear in this piece; as Alan George, violist with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, writes: "The 13th Quartet is indeed a harrowing experience for all involved; many listeners have been truly frightened by it, and even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed by it." I may as well throw my interpretive hat into the ring and posit that the ending strikes me as a painful - but ultimately equivocal - search for unity.

- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs, specializing in American music.