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Six Haydns for Emerson’s 40th


Not everyone stayed for the full three-hour-40th-anniversary-celebration. The Emerson Quartet on Tuesday night at Tanglewood featured all six quartets published by Haydn as Opus 76, his last complete set of quartets composed in his late 60s. By the time the normal concert ending hour of 10 PM had arrived, we had just gotten to No. 3 in C major, nicknamed Kaiser (the Emperor), most famous of the six. Those who remained for Nos. 5 and 6 heard as much color and imagination and delightful touches as in any of the four performed before the break.

The Emerson Quartet has long since established itself as one of the major chamber music ensembles in the country, recipient of many awards for performances and recordings. It is celebrating its 40th anniversary as an ensemble with two consecutive concerts at Tanglewood, both featuring Austrian composers: Haydn in the first, and Brahms, Berg and Wellesz in the second.

Before the opening, violinist Eugene Drucker informed the audience that the quartet was dedicating the performance to the memory of Joseph Silverstein, long time concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as a coach and guide to many string players and chamber music ensembles (including Drucker in his days as a Tanglewood Fellow), who died last November.

Haydn’s earliest string quartets were designed almost entirely for the pleasure of the players themselves, with perhaps a small audience of friends and relatives. But in the 1790s he became more aware of the existence of a paying concert audience (which was common in London, a city with a highly developed concert life) that would come to hear professional musicians perform a work that was intricate and challenging beyond the powers of most amateurs and that was addressed particularly to a listening audience.  His work began to make larger gestures, to pursue daring harmonic courses, to be filled with delicious humorous morsels. And his audiences remained astonished that he seemed as fresh as ever, that there was no sign of his being written-out. Speaking of the entire Opus 76 set of six quartets, Charles Burney, one of the most knowledgeable musical authorities of the century, declared them to be “full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects.” And they bore a freshness that one would expect to have come “from one of highly cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before”—rather than from a composer of advanced age who had written dozens and dozens of favorite pieces.

Of course modern audiences have an advantage that Haydn’s audiences did not: a printed program listing the movements of each piece and their tempo markings. Nor did they have program notes providing advance information about the content of the music, so Haydn’s ever changing fresh approaches could be truly surprising.

Even so, the program at Tanglewood offered a full panoply of surprise and delight. Small Haydnesque tricks such as the minuet in Quartet No. 1, in G major, which sounds for all the world as if it is going to be a square eight-bar phrase, only to get a sudden kick in the pants that sends it off for an unexpected extension, brings a smile. Haydn’s extraordinary obsession with the figure of descending fifths that dominates Quartet No. 2 brings amazement. His ability to write effectively moving lyrical slow movements not only in Quartet No. 3, with its Imperial hymn, but in several of the quartets, is a talent that is not often recognized in his work, but one that is certainly part and parcel of his musical personality – not to mention one that surely played some influence on his obstreperous student Beethoven. Haydn’s ability to make much out of little shows especially in the last two movements of No. 6, both based largely on a simple scale.

Emerson Quartet at Ozawa hall (Hilary Scott photo)
Emerson Quartet at Ozawa hall (Hilary Scott photo)

The players—Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Laurence Dutton, and Paul Watkins—have, since 2002, stood while playing, a practice that many younger quartets are attempting, or adopting. (Watkins, the cellist, is seated on a riser, which elevates him more closely to the level of the standing violinists and violist.) Drucker and Setzer play first and second violin in alternation (Setzer playing first in Nos. 1-3, Drucker in Nos. 4-6).

Their performance of all six showing wide-ranging expressive character, from internalized hymnic song to rustic dance movements, filled the evening with pleasurable touches, despite its unusual length. The heartiest and longest-lasting applause came just before 11pm, from those who had followed the entire course of the journey through one of the major masterworks of the entire chamber music repertory.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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