The Emerson Quartet plays Haydn, Bartók and Schubert with exactly the right quantity of polish.

Haydn, Bartók, Schubert: The Emerson String Quartet  – Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), David Finckel (cello) – Interlochen Center for the Arts, Interlochen, MI, 7.7.2011 (DBG)

 If the Emerson String Quartet’s twenty-some albums have not convinced you that this is a group of serious musicians, their July 7th performance in Interlochen would have. From the moment these four world-class musicians took the stage, not a single word was uttered until Philip Setzer briefly introduced the encore.

They even ignored a prime opportunity for impromptu humor when first-violinist Eugene Drucker (he and Philip Setzer alternate at the post), apparently trying to avoid an awkward page turn, had trouble arranging the score on his music stand between the first and second movements of Schubert’s Quartet No. 15. While Setzer looked on with patient insouciance, a loose sheet of music fell at his feet. Neither he nor Drucker let out as much as a grin. Drucker, visibly annoyed, quickly composed both himself and his score before leading his companions into the Andante.

It is not that the Emerson has anything against the occasional gag. Before taking the stage to inaugurate Aspen’s newly built Harris Concert Hall several years ago, they privately agreed to begin Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet by “bowing” their instruments an inch above the strings, thus filling the hall with an unnerving silence, causing architect and audience to squirm in their seats wondering what went wrong with the plans for a multimillion-dollar acoustical paradise.

But the Emerson will play tricks only on their watches. Otherwise it’s serious business. The gravity of their comportment is refreshing at a time when good looks and gimmicks often win out over beautiful sound, and it was all the more appropriate for a program consisting of three “last” quartets: Haydn’s unfinished Opus 103, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6 in D Major, and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G Major.

The ensemble approached the first piece with trademark reverence for the great Maestro. Haydn, frail and dying, only completed the Andante and Menuet, but it is nonetheless a fully mature work in which he continues to explore enharmonic possibilities without sacrificing the structural integrity of the idiom. He composed quartets throughout his career, but only now does he seem entirely comfortable with taking it out of the salon and onto the stage. The Emerson marvelously brought out the perfect cohesion Haydn achieved by allowing each of the four voices to retain a distinct individuality while contributing to the whole. Setzer, playing first violin, held back – almost to a fault – in order to let the other three shine. A key passage in the Andante calls for the viola to play a wilting figure at the end of the main section before the first violin resumes the melody. Pitch is absolutely essential here, and Lawrence Dutton nailed it. Cellist David Finckel provided gentle support throughout. Like the Andante, the Menuet has on overall descending feel interspersed with terrific moments of suspense. Finckel assumed the melody from Setzer with seamless elegance, thus allowing Haydn’s wit to come through naturally and making an otherwise maudlin piece quite fun. All four members relished in the wonderful dynamic contrasts of the Trio – something the Emerson String Quartet excels at.

Nothing, however, showcases their ingenuity better than Bartók. Given the Mesto theme and the fact that this quartet was composed on the brink of a world war, it has always been surrounded by a cloud of moroseness. Yet what really makes it enthralling is Bartók’s brilliant use of rhythm, particularly in the Marcia of the second movement and the Burletta of the third in which the musicians weave complex patterns of pizzicatos. What separates the Emerson from other quartets is precisely a command of passages where rhythm reigns supreme. They execute dance-like tempos with ease without slacking in energy. One can’t help but think that standing – a posture the Emerson adopted in 2002 (Finckel sits on a podium) – helps in this regard. The middle section of the second movement in which the viola strums against a legato dissonance created by the other strings was simply spellbinding. The Emerson’s absolute command of the score allows them to transcend mere synchronization and enter a realm where the pulse, no matter how complicated the overlapping rhythms, takes on a life of its own.

The other extraordinary feature of the Emerson’s playing is their masterful ability to pull off astonishing dynamic contrasts. This was evident throughout the program, but particularly in the Bartók quartet. Dynamic changes had an integral role to play in either developing a theme or leading to a new one. Whether played as a solo or as an ensemble, the Mesto, for example, was always dignified but never an end in itself. It always provided an exciting contrast to whatever preceded or followed it, and this can only be achieved by rehearsed – not merely innate – sensitivity.

The Emerson’s magnificent use of dynamic and rhythmic contrast was just as notable in the Schubert quartet. The initial tremolos in the first movement provided enough momentum to allow for fascinating variations of the main theme later in the piece. Finckel and Dutton, wonderfully supported by the violins, each took up the second theme with extreme subtlety and grace. This movement, perhaps more than any other of the evening, demonstrated that the Emerson is not only sensitive to the composer’s ideas; they place everything at the service of those ideas. Any reappearance of familiar material is more than simply a variation but a logical progression towards or from something else. The second movement begins with a tender melody in the viola taken up lovingly by the cello. Dutton and Finckel communicated this passage compellingly to one another and to the audience. Watching Finckel’s facial expressions as the key modulated from minor and major drew the listeners even deeper into the subtle expressiveness of this movement. The Scherzo was enriched by a textural complexity that can only come across in live performances, and the delicious Trio did not disappoint.

As an encore, the group offered a pensive rendition of the third song from Dvořák’s “Cypresses,” a perfect way to send the audience back into the woods of Northern Michigan. Students from the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp promptly lined up for autographs, and the musicians graciously obliged. If this is what young artists aspire to, chamber music has a bright future indeed.

Listeners often wonder if the Emerson String Quartet comes across too polished, and this concert was no exception. Each of the four members is a world-class musician in his own right. One is hard pressed to find even the slightest technical flaw in any given performance. They have been playing together for over thirty years, and the scope of their repertoire continues to expand. All of this adds up to a level of professionalism that threatens to squeeze out that intangible “human element.” These four gentlemen know that better than anyone.

Yet there is another way of looking at the issue. A quartet is only as good as its weakest member, and only as bad as the member who would prefer to go solo. Players must be extremely confident and extremely humble. Each must be a leader and a follower. Only then will they become utterly diaphanous to the music. So whenever I found myself thinking that they sounded too polished, I had to remind myself what – or better whom – I came to listen to. Drucker, Setzer, Dutton, and Finckel, or Haydn, Bartók, Schubert, and Dvořák? No offense to the Emerson, but I came to hear the latter, and I am convinced I did. So polish away, gentlemen, and reintroduce us to our old friends.

Daniel B. Gallagher