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Farewell to David Finckel

Emerson Quartet:
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Haydn, String Quartets

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Bartók, String Quartets
David Finckel has left the Emerson Quartet, with whom he has performed as cellist since 1979. The group gave their last performance with Finckel on Saturday evening, the conclusion of their Smithsonian Associates concert series at the National Museum of Natural History. As Finckel explained in brief remarks before the second half, the Emersons have played more concerts at the Smithsonian than any other venue, likely performing at one point or another every quartet they have ever learned. He also saluted one faithful listener, Carl Girshman, who has heard the Emersons some two hundred times. So it was fitting that the group marked the end of this chapter here in Washington.

That the next chapter has opened is a reassuring thought, for if we have had some complaints about their sound in the last few years -- including very minor blemishes of intonation and a tendency toward stridency of tone, heard again here -- the Emerson Quartet is an American institution. They opened this time with a Haydn quartet (D major, op. 20/4), one that the group has not yet recorded. While their Haydn would not be one of my first choices, the Emersons gave the accents of the first movement a crunchy bite, with some rushing over fast bits accounting for occasional ensemble issues, and playful metric ambiguity in the slender third Menuetto. The second movement was moving, not too gloomy and played without their accustomed zing in the tone, with a variation that featured Finckel nicely in a solo. They also had fun with the finale, its funny false starts and squawking motifs.

The Emerson's recording of the six Bartók quartets is not among my favorites either, but their take on this composer has improved over the years. This time they returned to the third quartet, and it was just as sharp and unified as when they performed it in 2008: the buzzes of the night music section, the ethereal serenade, the sighing glissandi, the folksy trills of the second movement, the lush and perfectly tuned dissonances of the third, the thrilling and ultra-fast precision of the finale. One might wonder how Finckel's successor, Paul Watkins, could possibly fit into this music, so lived in over so many years. It will take time, but it is possible, as violist Geraldine Walther showed when she joined the Takács Quartet.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, With a new member, Emerson String Quartet is still masterful (Washington Post, May 13)
It was ingenious to end the Finckel era with Schubert's glorious C major quintet (D. 956), a piece that allowed Finckel and Watkins to be seated next to each other, in identical chairs on the same platform, playing the twin cello parts. The piece opens with the first cello (Finckel) alone, with the second (Watkins) waiting in the wings in silence. Thinking about this performance last week, I looked forward most to the first movement's B theme, where the two cellos begin together on a high G, then gradually split to sing that gorgeous melody in thirds. It was indeed the high point of the entire concert, a bittersweet moment that you know cannot be sustained -- both Finckel and Watkins as cellists in the Emerson Quartet -- so soft and seeming stretched out, although there is no tempo change marked in the score, the other three instruments receding into the background, as if to savor it. Indeed, Schubert seems to underscore the ephemeral beauty of the moment, switching the theme into the viola and first cello at the parallel point in the recapitulation. The sense of benediction extended into the opening section of the Adagio, a wonder of stasis that lifts the listener heavenward, with the three inner instruments in suspended harmonies, the first violin trading thoughts with the pizzicato second cello (Watkins), an angelic contemplation then disturbed by the more urgent howl of the middle section and never quite regained. The scherzo and especially the trio seemed deflated by comparison to what came before it, alternately furious and lushly soft, followed by an Allegretto finale a little too amped up in tempo, but with another memorable two-cello passage, a last moment for the other three instruments to say good-bye before the drive to a thrilling conclusion, capped by elegant turns of phrase. To a huge ovation, Finckel took a couple of bows and then disappeared.

The Smithsonian Associates will continue to host the Emerson Quartet's series at the National Museum of Natural History next season.

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