The Emerson String Quartet at Wolf Performance Hall

The Emerson String Quartet, Tuesday, February 25, 2014, The Jeffery Concerts, Wolf Performance Hall

The Emerson String Quartet gave a lean, clean, reading of three standards of the string quartet repertoire last Tuesday evening. The group is renowned for their intensity, for the momentum they have built and sustained over a period of three and a half decades. Their unflagging energy and sense of organization enable them to concertize, record and teach – we become breathless in contemplation of their pace.

The key attribute of the performance was the tremendous sense of “living together,” the ability of the group to present us with the kind of tonal and textural integrity that comes from carefully working out a common understanding of the composers’ intentions. We are led to the conclusion that these artists individually and collectively apprehend the significance of each voice within the context of the whole.  In unison playing, the quartet absolutely excelled, breathing as one, finely attuned to each other, functioning as a true brotherhood. In their polyphonic moments, the musicians wove their separate lines together into a whole tapestry.

In a rather haphazard way, Haydn (1732-1809) fathered the string quartet genre in 1757. Over the following fifteen years, he did not give much attention to the form, but in 1772, while presiding over musical life at Prince Nicholas Esterházy’s country palace, undertook the writing of the six string quartets, Op. 20. Perhaps because the Prince had no real interest in the quartets, Haydn was free to experiment, free to divert his attention to a purely personal fascination. In any case, the six quartets represent a major advance in the development of the form. There are the trademark elements of wit and surprise, especially in regard to rhythmic tricks. There are also signs that Haydn wanted to step away from the galante style, and in these quartets, especially those written in minor keys, he was able to create mini-explosions by introducing sturm und drang, sharply contrasting emotional expressions that foretold the later arrival of Romanticism in the arts. The Emerson Quartet leapt into the spirit of the Quartet No. 26 in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3, Hob. III: 33 with verve. The violinist, Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, established the edgy tension so important to the sturm und drang philosophy, while Lawrence Dutton, viola, and Paul Watkins, cello, cleverly maintained the “rational” aspect as the foundation.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) completed the String Quartet No. 6, BB 119 in 1939, shortly before his departure for the U.S. from Hungary. The work is complex, and dominated by Bartók’s tormented knowledge of a tormented world. Each of the four movements begins with a slow and sad melody, and each then moves on to an array of moods, march-like, strident, gypsy-inflected. Bartók intended the final movement to be a dance, but replaced the idea with an elegy dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased mother. Here, too, the Quartet grasped the  sense of the music, reaching into the depths of Bartók’s personal lament, which, in fact, was a lament for the twentieth century.

It was in the Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No 3 “Razumovsky” by Beethoven (1770-1827) that the Emersons projected vast amounts of their personality. Mr. Setzer and Mr. Drucker exchanged places – the two men have made a practice of rotating positions – and this made no difference in the electricity level of the performance. The work is grand in its passion and emotion, a breakthrough for Beethoven insofar as he enlarged the scope of the quartet concept and placed great technical demands on the players. There are not the overt references to Russian musical sources, as Count Razumovsky’s commission had urged, although the second movement contains hints of Slavic feeling (more important in that movement is perhaps a touch of sadness, the acknowledgement by Beethoven that his deafness was advancing). The drama is intense from beginning to end, and this the Emersons presented full force. The quartet opens in a way that was new and strange – a confusion of tonal and rhythmic uncertainty before bursting forth in full glory. The second movement, as mentioned, expresses a number of ambiguities. The third movement Menuetto is the most predictable movement in structure. And the final Allegro Molto flies through a mixture of “fugato” and other textures, a triumphant statement of Beethoven’s will (“Let your deafness no longer be a secret – not even in art,” he wrote at the heading of a sketch for this movement) to persist, to hope, to inspire. Indeed, the Emerson String Quartet captured the essential message and shared it with us. The authenticity of character, the musical insights backed up by instinct and scholarship, the drive – all these qualities the members of the quartet brought to London. Each musician contributed to the brilliance of the evening.

As a final treat, the quartet performed the second movement of Mozart’s Quartet in E flat major, K. 428, a warm and loving farewell to an exceptional evening.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Renée Silberman is an essayist on topics of musical interest who has authored program notes for performances in concert halls in Canada and the U.S. She is the founder of the Serenata Music Series.