The Emerson Quartet, plus cellist Colin Carr, closed Rockport Music’s 37th festive r:EVOLUTION season Sunday with a mammoth pairing of Beethoven’s alternately gnarly and light Op 130 Quartet in B-flat Major and Schubert’s monumental String Quintet D. 956
Beethoven’s opus 130, one of his incredible late quartets, ended up evolving in its own right. After a lukewarm early reception, the composer replaced the original finale, known as the Grosse Fuge, with a more standard final movement—the one the Emerson chose. The revised finale is less epic in scope than the massive fugue (which ended up standing alone as Op 133), but it is nonetheless a brilliant presentation of material and witty working-out of musical problems, perhaps with a slight thumbing of his nose at his critics.
Hearing the quartet with what always seems to be its more “mortal” ending, does change the balance and scope of the whole. With the big fugue, the op 130 builds upon its profundity straight through to the end, culminating in an almost unbearable apotheosis of gravitas; with the revised finale, which is at some times serious but overall infused with assured jocularity, the quartet seems to echo Augustine’s plea “Lord, make me a saint…but not yet”, or Shostakovich’s lament that self-denial should have “a reasonable limit”.
The Emerson Quartet gave a masterful interpretation; muscular and gentle in turns, it kept perfectly in step with the unfolding duality of seriousness and lightheartedness that permeates throughout. Led by Eugene Drucker (Philip Setzer played first on the Schubert), the opening was filled with the tension of carefully controlled energy, in a sense perfectly reflecting the realities of making chamber music. Melodic duets were handed off with liquid tone amid accompaniment figures. The tight presto unfolded like a harmonious row of tiny glass sculptures, and the German dance that is explored in the fourth movement was a folk song infused with grace — and knocked off kilter with insuppressible Beethovenian wit. In the heartrending Cavatina, the soul of the work, the violins became one voice, each reaching higher, as if in mortal attempts to grasp the divine. At the end, a seabird silently sailed upward in the window wall behind the group, and appeared like a spirit freed to soar. The finale, as mentioned, rounded it off in a decidedly less profound but ultimately very satisfying way, as if a reminder not to take oneself too seriously.
After intermission, cellist Colin Carr bolstered the ensemble for Schubert’s C Major “cello” Quintet. Paul Watkins and Carr sounded sublime in the unique cello-duet theme, the entire opening movement doing exactly what Schubert intended, with its half-step motion, major/minor dualities, and two-sides-of-the-coin elements resulting in, as one audience member observed, “going to nowhere”, in the best sense. The adagio movement unfolded in textures both pastoral and religious, with a recapitulation in Beethoven fashion, when the combination of the two elements reveals them to be but half of the whole story. Lawrence Dutton’s viola sweetly sang over and amid the woody cello textures.
At this point, possibly to lighten the dramatic tension or simply out of a desire to take in the surrounding beauty, Carr, seated in the center of the group, turned around to take in the sunset. The audience, amused by this short divertissement, also found refreshment in the reorientation of their attention before the resumption of play.
The vigorous, rustic scherzo contains its unique trio, in a much slower tempo and disparate key areas, as if the village elder is recounting the joys and pains of a long life. The finale, at times muscular, nostalgic, but always forward-looking, roused the crowd to an extended ovation. The concert placed a fitting endcap on Barry Shiffman’s r:EVOLUTION [ery] first season as artistic director. Under his direction, artists explored interesting corners of the repertoire, played familiar music in innovative pairings, and in this case, allowed us to witness compositional r:EVOLUTION in its very construction.
Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.