Twinkling Adès from the Emersons

United StatesUnited States  Haydn, Adès, Brahms: Emerson Quartet, Meany Hall, Seattle, 2.10.2012 (BJ)

Haydn: String Quartet Op. 20, No. 4 in D Major
Adès: The Four Quarters
Brahms: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51

Can sounds ever be said to twinkle? If so, the word would accurately characterize Thomas Adès’s The Four Quarters, the absorbing centerpiece in the opening chamber concert of the UW World Series 2012/13 season at Meany Hall.

The young British composer’s piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Emerson String Quartet, which premiered it last year. Though not overtly descriptive music, its four movements, playing for a little under twenty minutes, imaginatively evoke the feeling of four distinct times in the passage of a day.

If there is a certain sense of violence lurking just beneath the music’s surface, this never quite erupts in the way it does in superficially comparable works by Adès’s older compatriot Harrison Birtwistle. The predominantly gentle sonorities do not merely twinkle—they also glisten, shimmer, I might even say jiggle. With its subtly shifting differences of texture, harmony, and attack, The Four Quarters made an utterly beguiling impression in a performance of spellbinding intensity.

This was the Emersons’ last Seattle appearance with David Finckel, their cellist since 1979. He will leave at the end of the season “to devote more time to his personal artistic endeavors,” and presumably also to the enterprising recording company, ArtistLed, that he runs with his wife, pianist Wu Han.

The two violinists, violist, and cellist that make up a string quartet are its limbs, and losing a limb is inevitably a traumatic business. Finckel’s strong, dark tone, which provided a customarily authoritative foundation for Tuesday’s performances, will be missed, though his successor, Welshman Paul Watkins, comes to the group with a very impressive résumé.

What often happens in such circumstances is that the existing members of a quartet draw new inspiration from the advent of new—and younger—blood. The performances of Haydn’s D-major Quartet Op. 20, No. 4 and Brahms’s Quartet Op. 51, No. 2 that began and ended this concert had much of the Emersons’ familiar tonal sheen and precision of ensemble, but there was perhaps a touch of the routine about them, as well as a disregard of repeat marks that was especially regrettable in the first movement of the Brahms.

There, if there is no regularity pre-established by hearing the exposition twice over, the dramatic shift to new material at the start of the development section loses much of its point. The evening’s best playing came in the ravishing slow movement of that work, its theme eloquently phrased by Philip Setzer, who as usual shared first-violin duties with the equally gifted Eugene Drucker. And in Brahms’s finale, violist Laurence Dutton’s projection of his moments in the limelight was truly electrifying.


Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.