IN: Reviews

No Contest Between Mighty Russians


The Emerson Quartet demonstrated yet again what it takes to stay near the front of the increasing crowd of string quartets. Arriving Thursday in Wellfleet’s Congregational Church in the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival after a five-and-a-half-hour drive, they played amazingly well on a warmish night in a soldout hall with air conditioning compromised at best. The three upper strings stood, as is their wont, while cellist Paul Watkins sat resplendently on an elevated platform. But the heat, fatigue, and perhaps some monotony took its toll on Schubert, who should have charmed, seduced, cleansed the palate for the main course, billed gently as a competition between two mighty Russians: Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. For those into making choices during this season of bitter national contest, Schubert seemed this evening shunted aside as a wilted green party, while Shostakovich won hands down over Tchaikovsky, who sounded remarkably uncomfortable with the quartet medium.

Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet, D.804, first performed in 1824, four years before his death, has to be among the 20 quartets most frequently played, given that it’s wonderful to hear in concert and also doesn’t make overwhelming technical demands on amateur hands. No need to write a lot about it. It joins Death and the Maiden and the extraordinary last quartet to form a threesome that’s entirely different from the dozen (plus unfinished works) Schubert composed when younger. Some view it as a sad work reflecting his illness and inexorable march toward an early death. Others hear the melancholy subservient to an upbeat outpouring of incomparable lyricism. Whatever; it’s extraordinary.

The Festival caters to a loyal following that presumably came to hear a renowned ensemble offer a fresh and special Rosamunde. That didn’t happen. The performance felt weighty, almost scripted. Not only did it lack spontaneity, but intonation also, particularly at the start, could have been better. The first movement was slow and long even though the customary repeat was left out. The marvelous Andante that gives the quartet its nickname lacked give and take and ambled along. The remarkably inward-looking scherzo felt heavy, and even the ebullient final movement lacked sparkle.

Phillip Setzer, who played first violin in this and the Shostakovich, was largely responsible for my disappointment. He sounded as if he wasn’t having fun, in contrast to the terrific playing he later exhibited in the Shostakovich. He has an amazing bow arm and for the Schubert produced a rich sound, but he offered little variation in his constant vibrato and dynamic contrast, and his use of rubato appeared calculated rather than improvisatory. Playing second violin, Eugene Drucker seemed both more engaged and engaging, varying his pure, lean, and sparkling sound and darting in and out as if trying to enliven the proceedings. Lawrence Dutton’s viola playing furnished some drive, but his sound too did not vary much. Paul Watkins, sounding both warm and at times gratifyingly gruff, brought more energy, but even he could not bring it all to life.

It was a different story when the group, without leaving the stage, moved right into the Shostakovich Quartet No. 10. Written in 1964 to honor fellow composer Moisey Vaynberg, it’s a four-movement work with a short first movement in which each instrument establishes its unique personality, taking their time before all play together. While there is little thematic material that repeats, it was uncanny how the movement provided a quiet, at times ghostly, yet coherent introduction to what followed. The second movement abruptly shattered reverie. A ferocious march arrived, a thunderous bolt of lightning that pushed the players to their limits. A gentle slow movement with a memorable passacaglia followed, and then a characteristically long finale that started calmly, turned into a gentle dance, became energetic and complex, and slowly faded into a calm and contemplative ending.

Even among his remarkable 17 works in the medium, it is extraordinary, and the Emerson demonstrated why they have played such a large part in bringing the quartets of Shostakovich into prominence. Setzer redeem himself. In the Schubert his bow was far away from the bridge almost throughout, leading to a warm color that lacked edge. But now he often moved his bow closer in and drew the gritty, astringent sound that serves Shostakovich so well. His colleagues joined in. We heard each voice speak separately with ease, yet extraordinary unanimity in impulse prevailed; virtuosity and ensemble were staggering. In the brutal second movement, Furioso, I worried that Watkins might leap off his perch as he demonstrated why he’s invited to play the big concertos with leading orchestras worldwide. Memorable also was Dutton’s lesson in how to play sul ponticello; his bow virtually on top of the bridge produced a sound that was otherworldly. And again, Drucker drew the listener in; almost every note seemed to have character, while magically fitting in.

Despite being very well-played, all I can say is that hearing Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3 left me content with no wish to encounter it soon again. Only two of Tchaikovsky’s chamber works for strings are heard often: the piano trio and the Souvenir de Florence sextet. Virtuosi enjoy showing off with them, but overall they may be more fun to play than to listen to. Tchaikovsky just doesn’t sound that comfortable with this genre. Had I not heard this quartet in the past, I would not have had a clue that he was the composer. It’s long, almost 40 minutes. It feels stiff and dutiful, obeying rules of composition and only rarely surprising the listener with an unexpected turn. I have the strong feeling that a demanding editor might have made it a lot better by convincing Tchaikovsky of the need to cut it by a third.

In the first two and the last movement, little riffs of no particular consequence are repeated again and again. His melodic gift seems largely quiescent, although the first violin and the cello get ample opportunity to show off. The third movement, a funeral march in memory of Tchaikovsky’s friend Ferdinand Laub, a violinist and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory who championed his two earlier quartets, is the high point. Perhaps in tribute to Laub, the first violin, dutifully echoed by the lower strings, leads some beautiful, reflective moments. Apparently, when first heard, after Laub’s death in a house concert, this movement brought friends and family to tears. But even that movement seemed studied, and I had the sense that few in the audience felt differently. The applause at the end of the quartet was short, and today’s obligatory standing ovation was slow to start.

Standing and sitting at Ozawa Hall (Hilary Scott photo)
Standing and sitting at Ozawa Hall (Hilary Scott photo)

It was, however, very well-interpreted. Drucker, now the first violin, sounded splendid. His colorful playing showed wide range in volume, color and nuance. Watkins matched him, enjoying himself and taking full advantage of opportunities for eloquence. The two inner voices, also fine, felt less individual and perhaps a bit cut and dried. In comparing it with a much earlier recording by the Borodin Quartet, the overall sound didn’t knit in a way that might draw the audience in effectively.

Which leads to consideration of what the instruments may have contributed to the proceedings. For this concert, Drucker used a very early Stradivarius, and Watkins played his remarkable cello that shows the hand of the two preeminent 18th-century Venetian makers, Gofriller and Montagnana. In contrast, Setzer and Dutton played on modern instruments created in recent years by Samuel Zygmuntowicz in New York City, a highly prized maker whose instruments have skyrocketed in value following favorable commentary by none other than the late Isaac Stern. They are powerful and can sound beautiful, as both Setzer and Dutton demonstrated, but they may not have the range and the unique character of grand old instruments. Drucker plays on both a Strad and a Zygmuntowicz (for those who’d like to pursue the question, the opinions of both Zygmuntowicz and Drucker are highlighted in John Marchese’s stimulating The Violin Maker), and I was glad he chose to play the former fiddle on Thursday night.

Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the 16th century on.

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