The 33rd season of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, and its fifth in the purpose-built Shalin Liu Performance Center in (where else?) Rockport, Mass., began Friday with a gala evening of cocktails, dinner and music—the first two for generous donors, the latter for them and hoi polloi. The music was, in fact, sandwiched between the cocktails and the dinner, and contained perhaps [this reviewer was left out of the food- and drink-born pleasures] the most nourishing of the three courses: the Emerson String Quartet, replete with its new cellist Paul Watkins joining long-time members Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins, and Lawrence Dutton, viola. The program was also a heavier, chewier one than is normally served up at summer music festivals, featuring the 13th quartet of Shostakovich and the 14th of Schubert, universally known as Death and the Maiden after the eponymous song, variations on which form its second movement.
The Emerson, which is a frequent visitor to The Celebrity Series, is of course one of the world’s most acclaimed quartets, having racked up nine Grammys, including one for their 2000 Shostakovich set; getting them represented a coup for Rockport Music Artistic Director David Deveau, who mentioned that their founding members were classmates of his at Juilliard. Their Rockport program was a kind of précis of their current touring program, which focuses on the last five Shostakovich quartets plus the Schubert and a few others that speak to the contemplation of death. Packed into a shortish program without intermission, it gave the audience a concentrated dose.
The Shostakovich Thirteenth Quartet, in B-flat minor, op. 138, dates from 1970 and is in one movement (his only single-movement quartet) with three sections, two Adagios sandwiching one twice as fast. He dedicated it to the violist of the Beethoven Quartet, and thus featured the viola prominently, including the opening theme consisting of a 12-tone row that nevertheless fits into the quartet’s tonal structure. The quartet embodies other “modernistic” techniques such as percussive use of the instruments’ bodies, which were innovatory in 1970 only in the constrained world of Soviet composition. Much more importantly, the quartet, like other of the composer’s contemporaneous work, powerfully confronts the bleakness of the atheist’s view of death (Shostakovich’s health had begun the decline that finally claimed his life in 1975, and much of his quartet was written in the hospital). While many creative artists, regardless of their religious views, console themselves that their works will assure them a form of immortality, Shostakovich refused himself even this balm. His death-obsessed late works respond to mortality sometimes with rage (e.g. the Fourteenth Symphony, which shares musical elements with this quartet), sometimes with resigned despair (e.g. the violin and viola sonatas) and sometimes with something like gallows humor (as in parts of the Fifteenth Symphony). An excellent description of all this in the context of this quartet can be found here.
The Emerson’s performance of this, as of the Schubert that followed, was a consistent, unbroken display of extreme intensity, sometimes subdued, as with Dutton’s riveting opening and especially his goosebump-inducing closing passages, sometimes powerfully keening, as with much of Watkins’s work. We heard some criticism afterwards that everything was too finely calculated, every phrase manicured and calibrated; and there is an element of truth in this, as it was plain that the refiner’s flame had been steadily employed on every aspect of the performance. That’s not to say that the playing was all smooth, glassy or bland: there were many rough, craggy spots, but they were there, as everything the Emerson played was, in service to a particular conception of the music, one we think was fully justified and appropriate. From the ghostly harmonics of the outer sections and the transition from the second to third, to the dance of death in the middle section, the Emerson displayed the passionate virtuosity necessary to convey the soul of the music. We’re glad they thought, practiced and rehearsed as hard as they evidently did.
Essentially the same can be said for the Emerson’s performance of the far more familiar Schubert. The intensity of expression never flagged for an instant, the first movement coming across with hurricane force. Every phrase in the deathly variations was a perfect breath, with some thrillingly compelling pianissimos. The fierceness returned in the scherzo, and the “bat from hell” whirlwind of the finale’s devil’s tarantella, and of its frantic fugal passages, left one kept the adrenaline flowing.
Setzer quipped in introducing the encore that after hearing all that death music the audience deserved something to lighten the mood; so they played the “Burlesque” movement from Britten’s Third Quartet, a piece that is, of course, all about death.
Was there anything to criticize? Not a whole lot that could be laid at the Emerson’s doorstep. There were too many exaggerated alternations of dynamics and exaggerated Luftpausen in the Schubert’s finale. And, as with many performers coming to the Shalin Liu without carefully studying the sonic quirks of the space, the Emerson failed fully to appreciate the extent to which the hall, especially with the great glass wall onto the harbor exposed and its generous provision of absorbent treatment, swallows up higher frequencies and amplifies lower ones, so that for a good deal of the time the balance between the violins and the others was not favorable to the former. Drucker in particular, employing an ethereal sweetness in many passages, projected thinly (Setzer, in the first chair for the Britten, sounded out more forcefully).