Tales of birth, death, oppression and academic politics lay behind the three works performed by the Emerson String Quartet at Sunday’s Celebrity Series Boston concert in a sold-out Jordan Hall. Borges once noted that it takes great skill to make a story seem simple, and that applies as well to the honest, straightforward, “simple” and highly refined playing we heard.
Mozart’s K. 421 is the second of his “Haydn” quartets and the only one in a minor key. For Mozart, D minor was associated with fate and death, as in his Requiem. In this case, the story line appears to have been influenced by all of the attendant complex emotions surrounding the impending birth of Mozart’s first child.
With Eugene Drucker sitting as 1st violin, the foursome took the moderato tempo marking seriously, and with a light touch and burnished gold coloration, emphasized the debt and homage to Haydn. Subtle responsiveness and interaction prevailed among the instruments, each calling and responding to the other marvelously. Throughout, Paul Watkins’s cello was grounded and supportive without being obtrusive. Elegant simplicity marked the melodic and graceful andante. The dramatic menuetto seemed to evoke the weight of responsibility, brightened temporarily by a sweet, almost celestial playfulness in the Trio, followed by a forceful return of the menuetto with bolder dynamics and greater f-p contrast. The siciliana theme in the last movement took on great emotional weight, with strong accents giving it the proper feeling of a full lifetime’s vision, a dance of life—the only dance there is. The four variations moved successively through a dreamy, almost Romantic infancy, a jaunty, spritely youth, maturity and wisdom, to a final look back, reflective, a bit sorrowful, then the panic and angst of Mozart’s wonderful ending and final cadence.
Composed during the Khrushchev era, Shostakovich’s opus 118 quartet can be heard as the reflections of a survivor, tinged with relief but mixed with great sadness at having witnessed so much death and destruction. The Emerson, with Philip Seltzer 1st violin, gave it a deeply personal reading, taking the opening andante at a moderate pace, hesitant and searching yet conveying the urgency of time passing, the cello brooded, and Lawrence Dutton’s viola swarmed with flies. An air of expectancy and looming threats built to an upward-moving lyrical cadence. The allegro furioso arrived with an immediate deep thrust, the jaunty 4-note theme of the opening now put into an accusatory third person. Pursuit was harsh, relentless, cello and viola goose-stepping, the cacophony of murderous stupidity relentless and inexorable.
Proceeding with almost no pause, they dove emotionally into the adagio’s passacaglia theme, a lyrical outpouring of private grief for all of the anonymous dead. Thin strands of yellow in the upper register of the violin against dark reds in the viola and burnt sienna in the cello brought out a deep cherishing of mangled and murdered human beings, their flesh vanished into pits of mud. The dirge comes to a climax of solitude and anguish, which precipitates a turning point as a majestic response seems to come back to the living from the dead, conferring the sacred task to bear witness. Ghostly and increasingly serene, the violin, led attaca to the final movement by way of the viola’s jaunty theme of grit and survival, gripped now by a new determination to move forward—or rather to move upward, through obstacles, regression, through a swarm of ugly memories and self-loathing, pursued by furies, plagued by doubt, annealed by Semitic themes evoking long-gone Jewish friends and colleagues, traversing realms of a theme turned obsessive and manic, climbing slowly up from Hell towards the freshness of the open night. E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
With Debussy’s 1893 example in mind, Maurice Ravel conceived his single string quartet and dedicated it to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who had allowed him to remain in his class as an auditor after he had been expelled from the Conservatory. As though wishing to call attention to Ravel’s own voice and emphasize the contrast between Debussy and Ravel, the Emerson marvelously brought out the work’s neoclassical character, contrapuntal complexity and polyglot urbanism. By giving more prominence to the cello than in the previous works, they expanded the range of color; by using a wide dynamic range with extremes of loud and soft, they imbued the piece with vitality. The first movement was played with sweeping elegance but also packed with rich ambiguity, recalling Robert Delauney’s desire to frame Modernism as a new classical age of Enlightenment. The second movement gave us shimmering textures and strong rhythms in the A section pizzicatos and a melancholy serenade in the inner B section, as though Ravel were addressing his own pain as a beloved mistress. The third movement was particularly moving, tinged with mysterious bursts of otherworldly light and played with expressive dynamics. In the fourth and last movement, the Emerson Quartet did something very clever and subtle: they prepared us for the climactic ending by emphasizing a series of crescendo episodes earlier in the movement so that the final crescendo was the last of them. The feeling was conveyed of living in a whirlwind of uncertainty, of grappling with the unexpected, with the potentially catastrophic, yet of living and of beating the odds and of staying afloat. The final cadence, at once glorious and comical, poignant and vernacular, left a note of self-deprecating triumph. Fluctuat nec mergitur.
It would have been enough… but they sent us home with a parting gift, the Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo, from Beethoven’s Op. 135.