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Emerson Quartet's Brahms and Bartók

The Emerson String QuartetA concert by the Emerson Quartet would likely be well attended under any circumstances. Little wonder, then, that the group's Saturday concert on the Smithsonian Resident Associates series was almost completely full, with a program consisting of two string quartets by Johannes Brahms and one by Béla Bartók. The Baird Auditorium, on the lower level of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, is a quirky little venue. A circular hall with a tiled ceiling that is part YMCA and part railroad station, it has a pleasing and resonant acoustic. Ionarts has been tireless in reviewing the Emerson Quartet series, which we have covered exclusively up to this point in the season: the first concert in September featured a new work by Kaija Saariaho, and the second concert last month included a new quartet by Bright Sheng. The third concert focused on more familiar territory, completing an integral performance of the Brahms string quartets, recently recorded by the group, and returning to their truly extraordinary (and Grammy award-winning) complete Bartók set.

As the quartet's recordings indicate, at least to these ears, the Bartók third quartet was the apex of the program. A terse tour de force without movement breaks, it is perfectly suited to the Emerson's intense, muscular style. Through all of the work's buzzing insect calls, folk cantillations, spiky dissonant chords, and eerie glissandi, the four players were united in scalpel-like precision. While the Bartók quartets may be a hard sell to first-time listeners in recording (as Jens has pointed out before), the appeal of a live performance, especially as icily robust as this one, is visceral (meaning that it has the effect of a punch in the guts). This is probably true even if it did, by one report, give the impression of hearing your parents fight and not being able to say anything. If anything, the Emerson's interpretation of this quartet is stronger, more refined than their recording, made almost 20 years ago.

Emerson Quartet:
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The two remaining Brahms op. 51 quartets (the op. 67 quartet having been performed at the December concert) bookended the Bartók. For part of the first movement of no. 2, the four players struggled to settle into agreement of intonation. By the time violist Lawrence Dutton had his turn at the main melody in the recapitulation, the group had resolved those issues. On first violin for the first half, Philip Setzer lent his great strength, a sweet and focused tone especially in soft passages, to the second movement. The rondo theme of the fourth movement, handled by all four players in faultless unity through all of its stops and starts, appeared in a range of multiply colored guises.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The Allusionist (Washington Post, January 22)
In both of the Brahms quartets, what stood out in this concert were the third movements: the Emerson Quartet has a characteristic grasp of the Brahms dance. For all of Brahms's seriousness (not to mention his personal tendency toward stoutness), one may not be inclined to think of Brahms as a dancer, but his waltzes and dance movements tend to be some of my favorites. The Quasi minuetto of no. 2, as on the recording, was a warm and muted affair, giving the impression of a dance imagined inside someone's mind, although the trio was brash and not quite aligned. The lilting third movement of no. 1 is not labeled as a dance, but its graceful main section serves as interlude to contrasting sections, including a lovely, understated waltz that caps it off. Switching to first violin, Eugene Drucker was laser-precise in no. 1, insistently pushing the intense Romanze second movement to the fast edge of Poco Adagio. His ability to produce a clearer but still searing E string tone at full volume also served the fourth movement well.

There is only one Emerson Quartet concert remaining in the Smithsonian Resident Associates series, featuring both Brahms string sextets (May 10). Violist Lawrence Dutton will also give a solo recital, with violinist Elizabeth Lim-Dutton and pianist Marija Ilic (February 2). All concerts begin at 6 pm, in the auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History.

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