The presence of a super-diva soprano brought out a large audience last night for the Emerson Quartet’s second Ozawa Hall concert celebrating the ensemble’s 40th anniversary, despite the fact that two-thirds of the program consisted of music by students of Arnold Schoenberg— normally regarded as box office poison. As soloist in two of those challenging and rarely heard works, Renee Fleming made a strong case indeed.
As with the Haydn quartet performances the previous evening, the program consisted of music by Austrian composers (Brahms, a North German by birth, qualifies by long residence during most of his adult life). He wrote his Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 quite quickly after finally finishing a string quartet to his satisfaction, having attempted and discarded some 20 earlier ones. As with his first two symphonies, the first quartet has a sense of being driven and, to some considerable degree, dark and heavily worked over a long period. The second in each case followed rather quickly and feels more open and welcoming, though the symphony (in D major) is without question more “genial” in mood than the quartet in A minor. Still a lyrical character is more strongly present in this quartet. Many genial passages in each movement derived from his friend Joachim’s frei aber einsam motif (“free but lonely,” F-A-E) [Frei aber froh “free but happy” was Brahms’s personal variant]. Even so, intricate and dramatic moments abound as well, and the expression and transition among them came very elegantly polished by the quartet.
The second work on the program is one by a composer hardly likely to be known to many in the audience. As a student of musicology some decades ago, I heard a great deal about Egon Wellesz’s important researches into the field of Byzantine liturgical music. I knew that he had studied composition with Schoenberg, but it seemed, in the academic world, that his work with one of the founders of the discipline of musicology, Guido Adler, had been far more significant. At least in the United States, if not in England (where he had taken residence upon leaving Austria in 1938), there was hardly ever an opportunity that I can remember to hear a single note of his music. As a result, until Wednesday evening, I rather thought that he was one of those would-be composers who was more successful at scholarship.
It was a pleasant surprise, then, to hear his setting of Sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Op. 52, for string quartet and soprano, composed in 1932, to German translations by Rainer Maria Rilke. Indeed, the surprise was such that I did a little belated research and learned that he composed rather prolifically, including 9 symphonies and 9 string quartet, eleven works for the stage (four ballets and seven operas), concertos, choral music, and much else. And though there were not a large number of recordings of his music, the symphonies have all been recorded by now, and—more to the point, perhaps—the Browning sonnets were recently recorded by the Emerson Quartet with Renee Fleming.
The soprano first spoke to the audience about the work, encouraging listeners to follow the texts and translations of these “gorgeous songs” so that they could identify lovely touches like the chirping of the cricket in song 3 or the twining of green leaves in song 4. Her warmly inviting introduction surely encouraged many listeners to approach the unfamiliar piece with receptive ears.
The compositional style is immediately recognizable as a product of the 20th century, with the contrapuntal intertwinings of the four string parts, over which the soprano line soars, generally lyrical in its expression, though not immediately “tuneful” (further hearings might change that reaction); each ends with a tonal resolution that provides a satisfying release from the passions and tensions; Fleming had clearly internalized the music and sent it out to the audience with warm expression.
The Emersons returned with Renee Fleming for one of the most powerful string quartets of the 20th century, Berg’s Lyric Suite.
Violinist Eugene Drucker previewed with a superb, compact account of what has become known as the “secret program” of the quartet, based on its inspiration by a passionate love affair between the married composer and a married woman whom he met in Prague while attending the premiere there of his opera Wozzeck. Only many years later did the composer and Berg authority George Perle have access to an annotated copy of the score that Berg had sent to this woman, relating virtually every part of the work to their experiences and feelings at the time of their meeting. Drucker’s presentation also served to explain the otherwise mysterious presence onstage of Renee Fleming. One of the discoveries in Berg’s annotations was the fact that he had hidden a setting of a poem from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, using a German translation by Stefan George, within the string quartet of the closing movement, expressing despair at the impossibility that their love can be consummated. Though Berg never specifically authorized the singing of this line, he did make clear that he had purposefully hidden it within the music. Hence a performance with soprano, occasionally, at least, can make explicit this fundamental part of the composer’s conception.
Certainly one could hardly ask for a more satisfying interpretation of the soprano line than the one Renee Fleming provided. The Emerson Quartet played the challenging score with energy, passion, commitment, and extraordinary ensemble. The six movements unfold alternating fast movement with slow, each successive movement becoming more extreme in either the fast or slow tempo.
The audience expressed wild approval with extended applause and cheers. And just when it seemed as if the applause was about to end, after several curtain calls, the soprano stepped back onto the stage to encourage more applause and then, as the quartet followed her, announced a “little encore.” This was the one remaining work on the joint CD containing the Berg and Wellesz compositions: a small piece by Erich Zeisl (1905-1959). The moving setting of the chorale text Komm, süsser Tod (“Come, sweet death”) in a late romantic style cast a fine benison on the evening.