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Satisfying Roundness of Emerson Quartet


Last night in Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, the Emerson Quartet presented a varied concert featuring works by Mozart, Adès, and Beethoven. Now in its 36th year, the Emerson Quartet currently features Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer on violin (alternating first part, with Drucker in Beethoven and Setzer in Mozart and Adès on this concert), Lawrence Dutton on viola, and David Finckel on cello. This concert is part of Emerson’s “farewell tour” to David Finckel, who is leaving at the end of the current season and being replaced in the quartet by Paul Watkins.

The concert opened with Mozart’s String Quartet no. 21 in D, K. 575, which Jan Swafford’s program notes characterize as “one of the most ingratiating quartets ever written,” then later as “ravishing.” This first of the Prussian Quartets could be, in lesser hands, little more than pretty music. Emerson Quartet takes Mozart to heart, from the sotto voce opening, the subdued dynamics, and the classical restraint. This was model chamber music, with equal voices and shared turns leading the conversation. In the opening Allegretto all lines were audible and shining, with matching articulations; the cello served as a motor driving the music forward. The Andante second movement highlighted matched vibrato across all four lines and a beautiful blending of sounds; the result was a touching lullaby. The third movement, Menuetto: Allegretto and Trio, continued the unrelentingly upbeat themes of this quartet but introduced a minor key in the development, adding a frisson of sadness, of tension and interest, to this work. In the concluding Allegretto, Eugene Drucker on second violin brought out a gorgeous baroque theme that is not always given such prominence; this backward glance amidst the sighing first violin and duet between viola and cello propelled the quartet to its conclusion. It was a pleasure to hear such a well-considered and still innovative reading of a canonical Mozart quartet.

And now for something completely different: Thomas Adès, The Four Quarters for string quartet (2010), a work premiered at Carnegie Hall by the Emerson Quartet on March 12 of this year. This “gnarly” work showcases “the tremendous unto ferocious energy [Adès] can generate in a piece” as harmony and rhythm express their “wild, ragged freedom” with “the old triads, the old harmonies and forms” underlying this programmatic work (so Swafford). Each of the four movements bears a title, giving a non-musical framework to this piece. “I. Nightfalls” begins with a play between harmonic and natural tones, the two violins working together while the viola and cello cavort across this unified upper voice; rhythm and melody vie for the listener’s attention. The effect is of shafts of light through clouds, perhaps even the glimmers of brightness suffusing Turner’s canvases. The second movement, “II. Serenade: Morning Dew” (the “Serenade” added after the premiere), begins with pizzicato ostinato fueled by cross-rhythms and marked by glissandi reminiscent of jazz contrabass playing; a short, bowed, second theme keeps the joke in this scherzo, before a return to the first theme. Formally, I was reminded of the Scherzo third movement in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 with its similar preponderance of pizzicati interspersed with a brief woodwind interlude in the trio. In “III. Days,” Adès intimates the propulsive rhythm of Shostakovich and the British chorale tradition so manifest in Elgar or Vaughan Williams. “IV. The Twenty-Fifth Hour” builds to an expansive phrasing and melody, not unlike the music of Samuel Barber.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this work, the amount of noise in the hall conveyed to me the dissatisfaction of some in the audience; worst were the married couple seated behind my right ear, with the wife’s shushings of the husband more audible than his grumblings. Like the punch-line to that old chestnut, “I went to hear Adès and a fight broke out.” Pity: many missed a wonderful opportunity to hear music of today in a masterful reading by performers in top  form.

Following intermission, the Emerson Quartet returned to run the marathon of Beethoven, Quartet no. 13 in B-flat, op. 130, with the original “Grosse Fuge” finale, op. 133. The players brought out the “heavy light” of Beethoven, wherein the importance is not overly freighted with ballast and bombast. This restraint was manifest from the opening of the first movement Adagio. The Presto second movement began in medias res, the theme a whisper only just become audible; such intimacy is not often heard here and it contrasted strongly, and intriguingly, with the folkloric tune heard later in the same movement. The Andante brought a lyric theme over a walking bass: the effect was of a sotto voce dance trying to find its footing and take flight. The fourth movement, Alla danza tedesca, was that curious hybrid: a dance-chorale, in which the ländler-like leaps in the melody took on a new life as the serious elevation of pitch and tone in guise of a Hosanna with undulating and organic swells in dynamic. The fifth movement Cavatina was a study in restrained passion, no less intense for the evident restraint.

Throughout these movements, the Emerson Quartet made more pronounced the staggered, fugato-like entrances – foreshadowing, as when Beethoven originally composed this work, the Grosse Fuge. The fugue finale the Quartet performed with no hint of restraint: subtle, yes, but not subdued. This fugue stages a conflict between classicizing form with all its clearly delineated boundaries and unbridled musical emotion; last night’s concert reveled in exploring this tension. Rarely does a fugue gallop, yet this one did and with a vengeance.

As an encore, those in the hall who had not fled at first light were treated to one of Mozart’s transcriptions of J. S. Bach’s fugues from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier – a fugue of calmness and repose, highlighting the distance traveled by Beethoven in his Grosse Fuge and bringing the concert as a whole to a satisfying roundness and closure.

Cashman Kerr Prin, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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