The Emerson Quartet in London: Masterly as Ever

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bartók, Janáček, Berg: Emerson String Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.2.2013 (GDn)

Bartók: String Quartet No. 3
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”
Berg: Lyric Suite

How to engage wider audiences with the knottier music of the 20th century? The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre is using a range of new approaches, from talks and concert introductions to films and participatory events. But this evening’s concert demonstrated that the best way to give this music broad appeal is to present it in performances by the world’s greatest musicians. The Emerson Quartet has such a collective charisma that the music they play, whether it’s Beethoven or Berg, can’t fail to appeal. Their approach is refined with few displays of overt virtuosity. The difficulty of this music is clear, but the players’ ability to traverse it with apparent ease prevents the technical demands from ever becoming a fetish. That allows players and audience alike to focus instead on the sheer artistry of these three remarkable composers.

The Emersons have been playing together in their current formation for decades, and they’ve been playing these three works for almost as long. The unity of the group’s approach is extraordinary. They explore a wide range of timbres in these three quartets, but in any passage the sound of each of the four instruments is closely matched. When Janáček passes his thematic material around the four players, it is almost impossible to hear where one player ends and the next begins. Their collective tone, although it varies as the works require, is based on a mellow, bronzed sound, rich in harmonics but also keenly focussed. Emotional expression is clearly the basis of their approach, and yet in this repertoire, which could easily be tipped towards its Romantic precursors by indulgent performers, their collective discipline and steady tempos always guarantee the full measure of each work’s modernity. There is a brutalist edge to Bartók’s primitive rhythms, a rare steadiness to the tempos in Janáček’s potentially folksy inner movements, and a focus on clarity of line in the Berg that demonstrates that, whatever it’s romantic subtext, this it is indeed radical music.

Concert programming for the Rest in Noise festival is based throughout on historical rather than purely musical concerns, and that has already generated a number of anomalies and gruesome mismatches. Not so this evening. The programme here focussed on works written in the mid-1920s, and the most important lesson we took away was that these few years produced some of the most original and influential works in the whole history of the medium. Connections and influences between the three composers were discussed in the programme (and in the overly long introduction to the concert), but such connections were difficult to hear. Instead, the programme demonstrated that, despite our preconceptions, Bartók has as much soul as Janáček, who in turn is just as radical as Berg, and that Berg wrote as idiomatically for the string quartet as either of his two contemporaries.

This concert was the last appearance by the Emerson Quartet in the UK with the line-up that has remained stable for 34 years. At the end of this season, cellist David Finckel will stand down, to be replaced by Paul Watkins. The Quartet performs standing, with Finckel seated at the centre and often seeming like the mastermind behind the whole operation, giving bowing cues and often setting the mood and energy level of the music with his very deliberate gestures. Watkins is, of course, a very fine cellist, and his introduction into a venerable American chamber ensemble is not without precedent (think of Daniel Hope with the Beaux Arts Trio). Nevertheless, he faces a formidable task integrating into this seamless and unified entity. Still, there’s no harm in a change, so let’s hope the Emersons return to the London stage sooner rather than later to show off their new recruit.


Gavin Dixon