in: Reviews

December 5, 2008

When Does 4=1? When The Emerson Quartet Plays.

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Here is a question to ask the next mathematician you meet: When does 4=1? After watching him frantically writing equations on the blackboard for a while, you can provide the answer: When the Emerson String Quartet plays. There are many fine quartets performing today, more in fact than in any other period of music history, but few have achieved the ideal in quartet playing: a perfect blend of sound, technique and interpretation. The Emerson Quartet belongs to this select group. The individual members-Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer alternating in the first chair position, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel-are each superb virtuosos and individual artists, but they have managed to create a quartet that speaks with one voice. (Full disclosure: I know Messrs. Drucker and Setzer personally, and even performed with Gene several years before the quartet was established in 1976. I wish I could boast that I have played with them since, but alas, the repertoire for harpsichord and string quartet is meager indeed).

The program, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at Jordan Hall on December 5, consisted of two lush, late romantic quartets by Antonin Dvorák, No. 10 in E-flat major, op. 51 and No. 14 in A-flat major, op. 105; Maurice Ravel’s magnificent Quartet in F major; and Anton Webern’s microscopic Six Bagatelles, op. 9. Each work was played in exactly the style it required, and with a command of rubato and voicing that a solo performer might envy. Dvorák, who came from humble origins (his father was a butcher), was reportedly a man of simple tastes and sunny personality. Each of his compositions seems to have smile on its face, and that was the response of the large appreciative audience at Jordan Hall. The Quartet made the most of the Slavic melodies and dance rhythms, the haunting dumka movements, and the broad romantic gestures that earned the admiration of Brahms.

The Webern is a different world entirely (think Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream). He writes in an extraordinarily concentrated idiom, and the Bagatelles, a relatively long piece for this composer, lasts about three minutes. Yet it is as finely wrought as one of those tennis-ball-size medieval rosary beads in which are carved all the scenes from the bible.

The Ravel Quartet can be counted as one of the greatest in the repertory, but Ravel’s colleagues at the Paris Conservatoire did not think so at the time. Ravel’s teacher Gabriel Fauré, for example, described the last movement as “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” His contemporaries were equally negative, and since this is final exam time at the universities, here is another question: Who are André Caplet, Aymé Kunc and Raoul Laparra? The answer: These are the composers who won the Conservatoire‘s Prix-de-Rome in 1901, 1902 and 1903 respectively, years in which Ravel competed for the prize but never made it past the required fugue. Ravel also tried in 1900 and in 1905, the year he submitted his string quartet, but with a similar lack of success. This last rejection caused such an uproar that it became known as the “Ravel Affair” and led to a complete reorganization of the school. History has proven Fauré and the other all the “grey beards” at the Conservatoire wrong, of course, and the Emerson Quartet’s performance of this great work was one of the best I have ever heard. The pizzicato second movement was particularly brilliant, and we even got to hear the last movement twice, almost. Drucker’s strings slipped badly out of tune during this movement, the Quartet stopped, Drucker retuned, and the ensemble began again, this time at a faster tempo and with even more fire and spirit.

Thank you, Celebrity Series of Boston, for presenting the Emerson Quartet. Please bring them back again.

Mark Kroll, a harpsichordist  and fortepianist well known to Boston music audiences, has toured extensively as performer, lecturer, and leader of master classes in Europe, South America, the Balkans, and the Middle East. His most recent book is Johann Nepomuk Hummel: A Musician and His World. His website is www.markkroll.com

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