In Seattle, Late Mozart by the Emersons

United StatesUnited States  Mozart: Emerson Quartet, Meany Hall, Seattle, 17.4.2012 (BJ)

Mozart’s three “King of Prussia” quartets, supplemented by the Adagio and Fugue in C minor that he created on the basis of an earlier work for two pianos, made a dream program for the Emerson String Quartet’s return engagement at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. The performances, moreover, were for the most part on the high level expected of this widely admired and richly experienced group.

At the end of next season, in what will be the Emersons’ first personnel change in 34 years, David Finckel will be leaving to concentrate on his other activities as a chamber music player, a soloist, and the artistic director of two major presenting organizations and a recording company. His successor, Welshman Paul Watkins, will have a hard act to follow, for Finckel’s sheer dynamism and keen musical instincts have made him a player to delight in listening to. On this occasion, I felt at the beginning of the program that he was having problems making his instrument, as they say, “speak.” By the end of the evening, however, all was well, and he had re-established all his familiar firmness of tone and vigor of line.

Next above him in the texture, Lawrence Dutton, playing Mozart’s own favorite instrument—the viola—seized happily on all the opportunities for eloquence offered him by the last three of the composer’s string quartets, and especially by the glorious subordinate theme in the first movement of the F-major work, which is perhaps the greatest of the three. Some fine phrasing and crisp articulation came also from the two violinists: the Emersons, unusually, switch positions for their violinists, so we had Philip Setzer playing first for the D-major Quartet, and Eugene Drucker taking over the first-violin part for the other three works.

So far, so good. But I think I ought to make a clear distinction between how the musicians played and what they played. These three quartets provide fascinating evidence of Mozart’s inexhaustible variety in the treatment and formal organization of his thematic material—if you play what he wrote. Consider: the first movements are laid out in three quite different patterns. In K. 575’s opening Allegretto, an exposition repeat is indicated for the exposition, but not for the rest of the movement; in K. 589, both halves (to use that word loosely) are to be repeated; and the same is the case in K. 590, but this time with the addition of a once-only coda. The minuet movements again show different patterns: in all three, in accordance with tradition, the main minuet is to return, as the da capo, after the central trio section—but in K. 575, unlike the other two, the return is specifically instructed to be made without the internal repeats.

All these differences are fascinating. Yet the Emerson Quartet obscured them entirely by leaving out nearly as many repeats as they observed. This is no problem for listeners who want to come to the concert hall and just let the music wash over them. But for the listener who knows—and wants to know—where he is in the music at any given moment, it is sorely provoking. There used to be a notion that such directions were put into scores by composers more or less at random. Ample documentary evidence from around Mozart’s time, however, shows that this was not the case, and Mozart’s very careful distinctions of method from one work to another also go to suggest that he knew, and cared about, exactly what he was doing.

I suppose it might be argued that some omissions were necessary to keep the Emerson Quartet’s concert within reasonable length. But this wasn’t by any means an exceptionally long program: the music played for about an hour and fifty minutes, including intermission. And though it was a pleasure to hear all four players dig with relish into the C-minor Adagio and Fugue, I would have happily forgone it for the sake of hearing Mozart’s ideas about how his music fits together rather than the ideas of four performers, no matter how talented.

Bernard Jacobson