United States Mostly Mozart (9): Beethoven: Emerson String Quartet, Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton, (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 19.8.2013 (SSM)
Beethoven: The “Razumovsky” Quartets
String Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2
String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3
The recent movie A Late Quartet, which appeared around the same time as the departure of the Emerson Quartet’s longtime cellist, David Finckel, raised some interesting issues on the dynamics of a chamber music group. The movie’s cellist is the senior member and the emotional center of the group, a role that might not be atypical in other chamber ensembles. The first violinist of the Endellion Quartet, Andrew Watkinson, in referring to the film, says: “The same could be said of our cellist, David Waterman. Oddly, I think the cellist quite frequently takes this role – perhaps because they are so often playing the bass line that holds the music together.”
Both the fictional quartet and the Emerson faced similar alternatives: whether to disband or find a new cellist. Finckel has stated in interviews that the long-term plan had always been to agree to a date on which to end the quartet in toto. But, having found a new player, they now had to start thinking of themselves as a group that doesn’t end but rather evolves. Since the Emerson has not had a change of members in 34 years, this was a critical moment in the group’s history. Mr. Finckel, renowned as an advocate for chamber music, will continue performing with his wife, the pianist Wu Han, and plans on spending some time perfecting his role as soloist in works for cello and orchestra. He will also continue as director of Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
The Emerson Quartet took a middle-of-the-road approach to the Razumovsky Quartets, delighting in their complexity. Normally one would expect that any musical set would start with the easiest and progress to the more complicated. Oddly the most modern-sounding and difficult quartet was the first and the “simplest” was the last, with the middle quartet in the minor key as the group’s dynamic center.
How does cellist Paul Watkins with his obvious technical prowess fit into the group? A litmus test of the technical ability of a string player could be the finale to the last movement of the third Razumovsky. Marked Allegro moto, this final movement of the set is often played considerably faster than the final movement of the second quartet (which Beethoven actually marks as Presto). All the members of the group played just about as fast as humanly possible. One can imagine one virtuoso accomplishing this feat, but it is hard to believe that there are four players in the world with these skills all together on the same stage. There were no signs at all that Watkins had recently replaced a 30-year resident of the cellist’s seat.
In general, the performance approached the music from a contemporary rather than a period perspective. Except for the aforementioned finale, these works were informed with a modern sensibility, and the classical themes of each movement were never overly emphasized. The group approached Beethoven’s “melodies” as kernels of potential material to develop, rather than as complete forms.
I doubt this view would have been the same if the group had never heard let alone performed the music of Bartók. String quartets were written throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, including those by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, but it wasn’t until Bartók in the second of his six quartets broke through the constraints of the diatonic scale into a new musical world that the quartet was free to go wherever the composer wanted.