For those of us who have followed — and loved — the Emerson String Quartet for 36 years, last night’s elegantly and insightfully played concert at Jordan Hall was unsurprisingly as excellent as all its others. Two of the pieces were the last full quartets Haydn and Beethoven wrote. This concert, sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, might be the last time many Bostonians hear the quartet with David Finckel, who leaves to pursue a myriad number of projects at the end of the 2012-2013 season. It was, thus, bittersweet for many an Emerson and Finckel fan.
The evening opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, Opus 77, no. 2, unusual on several accounts. As Steven Ledbetter pointed out in his program notes, it is possible that the very first theme in the opening movement, which the writer Cecil Gray identifies as a quotation from Leporello’s “catalogue aria” in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is an homage to that composer. The Minuet bounces along with an intentionally deceptive meter. The fourth movement, Vivace assai, in 3/4, is part German dance, part gypsy-style violin playing (by Eugene Drucker), whose syncopations were reminiscent of a polonaise. There was harmonic daring and irresistible cello playing throughout this most enjoyable — and important — quartet.
Thomas Adès seems to be performed somewhere every week. (See Vance Koven’s review here of the Boston Symphony Chambers last week.) The Four Quarters, commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation for the Emerson Quartet, which had its Boston premiere, is a piece that is quite easy to listen to and enjoy. Adès has been lauded as the next Britten, or even Purcell, but he’s doing just fine being the multi-talented Adès, composing, having his music championed by Sir Simon Rattle and played by major orchestras, performing as a virtuoso pianist, running Aldeburgh Festival (this is his last year). It would seem everything he touches turns to gold.
The Four Quarters loosely describes a day’s progress programmatically (resembling in concept Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) from “Nightfalls,” “Morning Dew,” “Days,” to “The Twenty-fifth Hour.” “Nightfall” is full of vibrato-less layers of sustained notes and striking dynamics of loud outbursts that quickly soften. “Morning Dew” is the most striking of the four movements, with strikingly plucked pizzicato strings that alternate with bowed notes having the identical rhythmic and melodic patterns. “Days” revolves around a syncopated ostinato pattern in the second violin (again, by Drucker). The two violins have an upwardly crawling scale motive; Adès seems to enjoy very high notes, and there were plenty in this piece. The last movement, “The Twenty Fifth Hour,” has the extremely unusual meter of 25/16; Adès is known for his rhythmic vigor, and this movement certainly displayed that. The Emerson Quartet is taking this piece all over the map. Its interpretation will no doubt be the definitive performance of what felt like a quite lovely, accessible piece that, I am certain, other string quartets will soon take up.
While String Quartet in F Major, op. 135, No. 16 was Beethoven’s final string quartet, he apparently envisioned composing a requiem, a 10th symphony, and an opera on a libretto by the distinguished German dramatist, Franz Grillparzer. Begun by Beethoven as soon as he completed the String Quartet Op. 131, the quartet is far shorter than its immediate predecessors. He had recently been inspired by the old modes and a cappella style in the third-movement “Heiliger Dankgesang” of op. 132 and fugue of op. 131 and looked back to Haydn and the music of the late 18th century. Philip Setzer again played first violin, and played it magisterially.
The Emerson Quartet nailed this piece (as it had the Adès), and the audience loved every note of it. Setzer got to play all those juicy first-violin solos. The second movement contained gorgeous violin playing, which evolved into profound beauty when the other three joined him. Setzer was restrained yet deeply expressive in the slow movement. Throughout, I noticed David Finckel, who must have much of this music known by heart, had his eye on violist Lawrence Dutton; their ensemble was strikingly excellent. The finale, half-humorous, half-philosophical, was a perfect conclusion for a witty yet deeply moving quartet. As his biographer Barry Cooper avers, “the movement could be regarded as providing a summing up not just of the quartet but of Beethoven’s career, which had been replete with difficult decisions, both within his compositions and in everyday life.”
For a delicious New England encore, the quartet played the first movement of Ives’s First String Quartet. The audience was both smiling and enraptured, here and throughout this beautiful concert.
The Emerson players are my age, and I’ve watched their careers take off and their hair grey, and through it all, they continue to play more elegantly and yes, thrillingly, than any other quartet today. I have never had a doubt of their musical insightfulness or their technical gifts. These were once young musicians who could have chosen to have big solo careers or whatever they wanted, and they all chose each other and to be in a quartet. The Quartet has been festooned with awards from everywhere and everyone; its CDs have won all the important awards. Year after year, I have loved their seven-CD set of the Beethoven Quartets, which was the gift to give in 1997. Today, re-listening to that set’s CD of last night’s Opus 135, the foursome sounded as as great they do now. To those who have followed this quartet, it is clear they had it all from the beginning.