Glorious Playing from an Elite String Quartet

GermanyGermany Mozart, Janáček and Haydn: Emerson Quartet [Philip Setzer (violin), Eugene Drucker (violin), Lawrence Dutton (viola) & David Finckel (cello)], Hercules Hall, Munich, 12.3.2013

Mozart: String Quartet No. 20 in D Major, K.499 ‘Hoffmeister’
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1

Emerson Quartet Photo Credit Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Unlike soccer clubs frequently sacking their managers at the merest whim, string quartets are not renowned for changing their personnel easily. So I was rather shocked when in February last year I heard that cellist David Finckel was to leave the world renowned Emerson String Quartet. When Paul Watkins replaces Finckel at the end of the 2012/13 season this will be the quartet’s first change in thirty-four years. A check of the Emerson schedule revealed this recital at the packed Hercules Hall, Munich was the final international recital of the original line-up.

Experience has shown that when a long established player leaves a quartet it can be an extremely unsettling experience from which many quartets never really recover. On the other hand, the Berlin based Artemis Quartet has undergone a number of changes and seem to have improved from the experience. Following this imminent personnel change, time will tell if the Emerson can maintain their position together with the Henschel Quartet at the head of the elite group of string quartets on the world stage today. I would also include the Takács; Talich; Hagen; Leipzig and Pacifica Quartets as part of this leading group with the Quatuor Ébène improving all the time.

With its sobriquet the ‘Hoffmeister’ Mozart’s String Quartet No. 20 in D Major, K.499 rarely fails to satisfy and was the perfect way for the Emerson to open their programme. I just wanted to smile with contentment – such was the captivating quality of their playing. Everything felt clean and polished but not so as to render the effect sterile and it still contained a comforting warmth. With lightness of touch and rapt concentration the intense emotion of the Adagio was not grief stricken, instead it felt like a yearning to be reunited with a beloved.

I have attended several performances of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2Intimate Letters’ which has become increasingly popular over the last few years. The writing is seen as a reflection of the composer’s unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová. Thirty-eight years younger than himself Stösslová was the composer’s muse and he wrote her some 700 letters. The Emerson showed how the outpouring of passion of this emotional score can be communicated without their playing ever becoming wild and unruly. I have heard ‘Intimate Letters’ played with more passion and vigour but never with as much penetration into the heart of the score.

After the interval came Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 the first of three strings quartets commissioned by patron Count Andreas Razumovsky. The score abounds with fresh and innovative ideas expanding the full tonal range of the instruments. For the Beethoven Eugene Drucker took over from Philip Setzer as leader and if anything conveyed even more beautiful playing with a smooth, sweet tone. With such assured control of dynamics and tempi the Emerson revealed the beguiling and ephemeral mystery of the four movement score. In the challenging Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando movement everything was impeccably controlled and highly refined – if perhaps a touch too well-mannered for my taste. Taken as slow as they dared the Adagio contained a dreamlike ecstasy which could hardly be bettered. Resisting any temptation for power over expression the overall effect throughout the F major score was one of unalloyed joy.

It was a privilege to hear glorious chamber playing of such an elevated level on the stage of the Hercules Hall, Munich. With such polished ensemble and immaculate intonation there was an unforced naturalness from the Emerson who demonstrated a rare ability to convey playing of a special humanity. Over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed the rock steady playing of cellist David Finckel with the Emerson and wish him well for his future projects.

Michael Cookson