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Emerson Offers Decorous Ives, Balanced Janácek, Old-Friend Shostakovich


The Emerson Quartet visited Jordan Hall on Friday night, December 4. They opened with the first Ives quartet. Like much of his early music, it mixes academic assignments with independently written work (the latter showing more of his burgeoning voice). The quartet, titled “From the Salvation Army,” takes shape around the format and tunes of revival meetings; it’s a spirituality that embraces struggle and tastes of enthusiastic experiences. The Emerson’s take on the music was very clean. They shifted sensibilities when the stylistic allusions dictated so, but their playing was essentially decorous. The thing that always excites about Ives is that there’s dirt on the floor when he reaches for the heavens, his assertion that cleanliness is, in fact, far from godliness.

Both of Janácek’s quartets are programmatic and concern torrid love affairs. They’re the subject of the Emerson’s latest recording. the first, based on Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, was presented on this program. It’s fun music to listen to. Character-associated themes appear, foreshadow the coming drama, and are developed to tragic climax. Their reading brought out in equal parts the music’s romanticism and its modernity, its passion and its weirdness.

After an intermission, we got Barber’s Adagio. Normally heard arranged for string orchestra, it comes from his op. 11 string quartet. In keeping with its allusions to Renaissance vocal music, the playing took an early music tint: even tone and minimal vibrato. It was hard to tell why it was programmed. It’s so familiar that it needs a lot to liven it up. It’s one big money shot of pathos, but was placed in the middle of three pieces with more intriguing emotional narratives.

The group seemed most at home in the finale: Shostakovich’s 9th Quartet. Their stance to the piece was that of old friends catching up. Nothing to prove, just paying attention to the little things that had changed since the last time they’d seen each other. The experience was listening to people listen to each other. As an encore, we heard an arrangement of a Dvorák song. It was essentially a trifle, but played with much grace.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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