Lesser steers a ribbon-fine path through territory that could easily have become awkward. Unlike Adam Zamoyski, a historian who in his otherwise beautiful biography of Chopin mostly avoided discussion of the music itself, she ventures into lengthy verbal descriptions of the quartets, or at least of the effect of listening to them, as well as the possible correlation between their musical content and the composer's philosophical or emotional state of mind.
Musicologists and critics always fight hard against the notion that a work of art has anything to do with its creator's life. Conversely, most of the listening public is emotionally affected by music — that's not the least point of listening to it — and can find it difficult to swallow the idea that the composer of a work that moves us was not himself emotionally involved in it. Lesser is anything but unaware of this contradiction. She makes it clear that her descriptions are personal responses and that the oversimplified life-and-work correlation that is often applied, especially to the popular Eighth Quartet, is not a good idea.
There are as many shades of meaning and contradictions of intent within the pieces, and our responses to them, as there were within Shostakovich himself. She makes her case in the pages devoted to the Eighth Quartet: "Certain kinds of artworks have an even more intimate relation than usual to the person who created them [...] I believe Shostakovich's string quartets are this kind of artwork: I think that if they are examined closely, in the context of his daily existence, they can give us a form of access to this extremely veiled artist, however tenuous, that we otherwise might not have."
A trained musician's eyebrow might flick upward at certain comments — for instance, the idea that a solo violin suggests a singing voice is perfectly standard, so could be thought less remarkable than is made out. Yet Lesser is adept at capturing the elusive way that musical meaning is complete within itself; she often moves in a few lines from a pertinent comparison to the acknowledgement that such parallels ultimately can't work.