Where were the crowds of Washington's devoted chamber music lovers for the Emerson Quartet's Wednesday night concert at the Terrace Theater? The group regularly sells out its Smithsonian series at the National Museum of Natural History, so it must be a post-election quirk that the fan base did not buy more tickets to the cheaper Fortas Chamber Music Series at the Kennedy Center. It may not have helped that this concert was the first part of the completion of the Emerson Quartet's complete cycle of the Shostakovich string quartets, left half-finished in 2007 (see our reviews).
No. 9 (Jerusalem)
No. 11 (Jerusalem)
The Emerson's strengths were as evident as always, live as on disc, a muscular leanness and an almost Spartan control of tone and dynamic balance. For all that, the group's take on no. 9 was, pleasingly, not particularly acerbic, with subdued, motoric playing in the first movement and a sweet, warm opening to the second. The second half of this quartet, admittedly not one of my favorites (last reviewed live from the St. Petersburg Quartet and on disc from the Jerusalem Quartet and the Mandelring Quartett), was much darker, with a sardonic theme in the second violin in the middle movement and an absolutely rabid fugue in the last. As Shostakovich revisited the music of his earlier movements in the last one, it became a barbaric bloodthirsty romp.
The last time we reviewed no. 10 live, it was with the Jerusalem Quartet. By contrast, the Emersons again took a more subdued approach, applying a gentle insistence to the repeated-note counter-melody of the first movement and a buzzing, outer-space feel to the sul ponticello section. There was greater physicality in the axe-chopping detached second movement, the throaty first violin of Philip Setzer (who sat primarius for both nos. 9 and 10) reinforcing the knife-edge brutality of this rather obsessive interpretation. Chromatic neighbor tones destabilized the more triadic and traditional harmonic progressions of the third movement, and the quartet added a comic bite to the neurotic character with the buffoonish viola melody played memorably by Lawrence Dutton in the final movement.
Lawrence Drucker brought a clearer tone to the first violin part in the second half of the concert, not as searing as Setzer but with more twinkle and agility. No. 11 (F minor, op. 122) was Shostakovich's memorial to Vasily Shirinksy (d. 1965), the second violinist of Beethoven Quartet. Its seven short movements, linked together without pauses, suited the Emerson's carefully calibrated approach, with the sounds of toy music and cat-meow glissandi (second movement), whining mosquitoes (fourth), and a humoresque more acidic than jocose, except for the second violin's deadpan cuckoo motif (fifth). By contrast, no. 12 was the least involving emotionally for the Emerson Quartet, presented with impressive coordination among the four players in the call-and-response motifs passed around the group. The wild runs came off as technically astounding, if clinical and cold, and the athletic edge of the final movement's driven coda sounded a little too hammered.
Daniel Ginsberg, Emerson String Quartet (Washington Post, November 7)
The next concert in the Fortas Chamber Music Series will feature the Perlman-Schmidt-Bailey Trio next Wednesday (November 12, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.