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Emerson Quartet Starts the Year

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

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Shostakovich, String Quartets, Emerson Quartet

Live Shostakovich Cycle:
2007 | 2008
Hearing an ensemble multiple times in a season is different from the occasional concert. One has a different listening relationship with the National Symphony Orchestra (229 concerts reviewed, at the time of this writing) or the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (108 concerts) than one does with a group that visits once every other year. With international-caliber string quartets, this situation is even rarer. At the dawn of Ionarts, the Juilliard Quartet was still playing regular concerts at the Library of Congress. While some local quartets play a regular series, the Smithsonian Associates series featuring the Emerson Quartet (21 concerts reviewed, not nearly as many as I would have liked) is one of a kind. As the group's former cellist once put it, the Emersons have played more concerts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History than in any other venue, likely performing at one point or another every quartet they have ever learned. The latest one, on Saturday night, offered more evidence of an evolution of the Emerson sound, in both good ways and bad ways.

Mozart was not really an Emerson specialty, at least to my ears, but as in another recent concert a Mozart quartet, K. 387, proved a pleasing surprise. It took some time for the intonation and ensemble to cohere in the first movement, which did not seem all that remarkable, but by the second movement, Philip Setzer's tone on first violin, sweet and long on finesse, came to the fore in a Menuetto set at just the right tempo. Except for some more forceful playing in the trio, the musicians did not overdo the movement's reeling chromatic motif either, with its off-beat accents, and the slow movement, pushed perhaps a little more slowly than its Andante marking, was lush and lovely. The finale, tart and a little abrasive in old-school Emerson style, had the feel of a burbling comic opera overture.

Shostakovich's quartets always seemed to suit the Emerson temperament, and this reading of the slender seventh quartet (F# minor, op. 108), apart from what seemed like a slight misalignment over a cello entrance somewhere in the first movement, was moody and somber, casting a tense spell in the second movement especially, thanks to Lawrence Dutton's mournful viola solos. Once the piece hit its furious, obsessive stride in the third movement, the edge of turmoil and anguish was sharp indeed. Also as in other recent concerts, it was the Beethoven (op. 127) that proved the only disappointment, partly due to the slightly raspy tone and occasionally sour intonation of Eugene Drucker on first violin but also because a tendency towards brashness was too pronounced. For this concert, we happened to sit on the right side of the auditorium, a decision rewarded by Dutton's rich viola sound and some burnished A string playing by cellist Paul Watkins, especially in the gorgeous second-movement variations. At the same time, Watkins's propensity for rushing the downbeat just a bit undermined the solidity of the scherzo movement, especially in the ultra-fast trio. A raucous finale was enough to bring the crowd to its feet.

More late Beethoven in the next concert by the Emerson Quartet (April 18), paired with Haydn and Berg, at the National Museum of Natural History.

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