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Emerson Quartet Gives Thanks

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Beethoven, String Quartets,
Emerson Quartet

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Mozart, Prussian Quartets,
Emerson Quartet
David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet since 1979, recently announced that he will be retiring from the group at the end of next season. At the group's concert on Saturday evening, the latest in their Smithsonian Resident Associates series at the National Museum of Natural History, one again had the impression of a group possibly pulling apart at the seams, musically speaking. Playing in a string quartet can be a contentious affair, the possible acrimony aggravated by the rigors of international touring and the pressures of close collaboration, something that some musicians, like Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet, have written about in their memoirs. (The Emerson Quartet featured in a piece by Norman Lebrecht on this subject for The Strad a couple years ago.) The Emerson Quartet, formed in 1976, has already named a successor to Finckel, so the group obviously has every intention of enduring. Slight inconsistencies in this performance, of intonation, of ensemble, of balance, hinted at some discord in the group, or at least fatigue, but that is only speculation.

The high point of this concert, a pairing of two late Beethoven quartets, was the middle movement of the second of the two, op. 132. Having been restored to health after a life-threatening illness, Beethoven inscribed this movement with the words "Sacred Song of Thanks to the Divinity by a Convalescent," setting the music not in major or minor but in the Lydian mode, to heighten the sense of a formal piece of liturgical music. Where most of the other movements had a stridency that seemed to come from disquiet or disagreement, this central movement felt calm, steady, reverent, with the intonation and blend all even and true, as cooperation and control were foremost, with some of the most assured, silky playing from first violinist Philip Setzer. By contrast, the first movement was marked by an urgent, edgy tone and the second had a folksy, pleasant gentility, while the fourth movement's march had crunch, more hammered than vivace. The fifth movement concluded the concert on a turbulent, chest-heaving note, even a little overblown in the middle section. It was intensity for intensity's sake.

This week's battle of the late Beethoven quartets -- the genre-bending compositions occupying the composer in the last two years of his life -- began with an op. 131 from the Takács Quartet, which was a model of clarity, a performance, as Joseph Kerman once described op. 131 itself, "effortlessly in control of itself." (I enjoyed it much more than the Emerson's last performance of op. 131, a year ago. For comparison, you can listen to the third movement of the "Heiliger Dankgesang" played by the Takács Quartet, warmer and less disembodied than how the Emerson played it.) The Emerson opened this concert with op. 127, a quartet in the key of E♭ major, "often a key of grand rhetoric and symphonic gestures," in the words of critic Michael Steinberg. While this puts the Maestoso opening of op. 127 in the company of the Eroica symphony and the Emperor Concerto (its opening motto is just as recognizable, its nuances analyzed cogently by Steinberg -- hear it performed by the Talich Quartet), it did not really justify the overwrought, even acerbic sound applied by the Emersons. Eugene Drucker had a sweet tone on first violin in the softer moments, but his E string was not quite reliable and his left hand a little rusty, with tuning and accuracy issues in the third movement.

The Emerson Quartet will repeat this program on Wednesday night (March 21, 7:30 pm) at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, augmented by one of the Mozart Prussian quartets from their new CD. In Washington, the survey of Beethoven's late string quartets continues next month, when the Emerson Quartet will perform opp. 131 and 135 (April 28, 6 pm).


Dennis Gallagher said...

Seriously? I've seen many Emerson Quartet reviews but never one as mixed verging on unfavorable as this one. It's hard for a non-musician to distinguish between high standards and mere captiousness, but I would have to say that having attended the concert myslef I did not find much in this review (unlke most other reviews by Mr. Downey) that I agreed with or could relate to my own experience.

Charles T. Downey said...

Dennis, thanks for sharing your point of view, which is always welcome. Hearing music is obviously a subjective thing, so it never surprises me that others' opinions differ from mine. Thanks for reading!