In their twentieth appearance with the Celebrity Series on Sunday afternoon at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, the Emerson String Quartet focused squarely on nineteenth-century romanticism in full bloom. The players were Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins, Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello.
Drucker was the first violinist in the opening work, the String Quartet in D Minor, op. 34, by Antonin Dvořák, composed in December, 1877. In November, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick had written to Dvořák of Brahms’s interest in his music and, although they had never met, Dvořák boldly sent off a copy of his newly completed quartet to Brahms early in 1878, asking him to accept its dedication. Brahms made suggestions for revisions and helped further Dvořák’s career by recommending his music to the Berlin publisher Simrock and also to the well-known violinist Joseph Joachim.
The quartet opens quietly with a falling fourth motive in the first violin that gives way to energetic dotted rhythms and double stops, only to reappear, pianissimo, in the second violin. Similar outbursts follow the pianissimo second theme. The falling fourth motive is more fully exploited in the development section, and yet again in the coda. The second movement functions as a scherzo, but is in fact in duple meter and titled Alla Polka. Allegretto scherzando, with a decidedly folklike cast. The Trio shifts to triple meter for a leisurely rustic waltz. The Adagio introduced an entirely different sonic atmosphere, with muting of all four instruments and extensive use of double stops. The Finale, Poco Allegro, had almost the fury of a tarantella, winding up to an apparent climax in D major only to indulge in another pianissimo excursion before concluding in D minor.
Written a year after his marriage in 1841, Robert Schumann’s string quartets opus 41 represent a new found interest in classical forms and techniques as underpinning for his own romantic conceptions. The three quartets were dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn and published in 1848. The third quartet, in A major, opens with a brief and harmonically tentative Andante espressivo on a falling fifth motive. The Allegro molto moderato in 3/4 time that follows repeats the falling fifth of the Andante in various guises before turning to a lyrical theme on the cello in its high, most expressive range. In the development, the falling fifth is first narrowed and then widened, while the tonic is reaffirmed by the reappearance of the lyrical theme in the cello and a coda brings back the opening motives. The theme of the second movement, Assai agitato, in F-sharp minor, is characterized by an insistent offbeat rhythm. There follows a contrasting section with an equally insistent downbeat rhythm, actually the first in a series of variations that include a fugato, a song-like Adagio, and a rousing conclusion. In complete contrast, the Adagio molto third movement is an exploration of intricate figuration and enriched textures surrounding hauntingly expressive melody, while the Finale, Allegro molto vivace, an episodic composite of contrasts, ends in a fiery burst of energy. Philip Setzer was the first violinist in this quartet as well as in the Brahms quartet that followed the intermission.
It was not until 1873 that the forty-year-old Brahms ventured to bring to light his first two published string quartets, performed and published in the same year as opus 51, nos. 1 and 2. The second quartet, in A minor, was a perfect vehicle for the Emerson’s dramatically engaged playing style. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, opened quietly with a rising sixth in the first violin, marked espressivo, leading to increasingly dense harmonies and rhythms until the air was suddenly cleared by the entrance of the second theme in C major, mezza voce. Yet here too chromatic coloring and cross rhythms thickened the texture in a richly contrapuntal fabric. In the second movement, Andante moderato, the opening song melody contrasted with a densely figured interlude in which a new melody appeared in canon between the first violin and the cello, and it was the cello that carried the opening melody when it returned in ornamented form. The third movement, Quasi Menuetto, brought a ghostly reminiscence of a dance, with offbeat accents and drone fifths in the cello and, rather than a Trio, a contrasting section, Allegretto vivace, in continuous running notes. The Finale, Allegro non assai, was an energetic dance in triple time that lent itself to a plethora of cross accents and conflicting rhythmic groupings.
Pressed for an encore by the Celebrity Series’s notoriously appreciative and demanding audience, the quartet returned to the stage to play what Philip Setzer announced as the end stage of Romantic music: the third of Anton Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, from 1909 — all thirteen whispering measures of it. It was a brilliant choice.
The Emerson players (except for their cellist) play standing up, and tend to face outward toward the audience, engaging with them as well as with each other. In this arrangement, all four players are equally visible. (As noted in the program, cellist David Finckel will leave the quartet at the end of this season, after more than thirty years with the ensemble. He will be succeeded in May by Paul Watkins.) All four are superb solo and ensemble players, with precise intonation, eloquent phrasing, and constant attention to balance and pacing. They performed with a sense of conviction and inevitability that was positively contagious.