Emersonian Splendor as Compelling as Ever

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Beethoven, and Ravel: Emerson String Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 27.3.2015 (BJ)

Haydn: Quartet in G major, Op. 76 No. 1
Beethoven: Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74, “Harp”
Ravel: Quartet in F major

When a long-established ensemble undergoes a change in its membership, the results can sometimes be disruptive, but more often it seems that new blood stimulates new enthusiasm. I am far from suggesting that the Emerson Quartet that consisted of violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel was in any way short of enthusiasm, dedication, brilliance, and sheer mastery. That foursome kept up remarkable standards of performance through many uninterrupted years together, and cellist Finckel was always an impressive contributor of interpretative intensity and virtuoso power. But his departure two years ago, to be replaced by the Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, has certainly not led to any diminution in the quality of this outstanding group’s performances.

 In this particular program, as it happened, Watkins had an immediate opportunity to seize the audience’s attention. Opus 76 No. 1 (which, with its utterly gorgeous slow movement, is perhaps my very favorite Haydn string quartet, or at least one of my 30 or 40 favorites) begins, after just three prefatory chords, with an almost jocular theme that begins as a cello solo, after which viola, then second violin, and then first violin take it up in turn. Typically of the Emersons, they managed to make all four phrases reflect personal traits without suggesting any degree of conflict or incompatibility. Violist Lawrence Dutton’s tone was as finely produced as Watkins’s, but its expressivity was subtly different, and the two violinists were just as characterful and yet just as assimilable into the overall sound-scape.

 The Emerson, whose violinists and violist play standing up, is one of the relatively few quartets in which the violinists alternate on first and second chairs. It was Philip Setzer who led in the opening and closing works on the program: his bowing was meticulous in its precision in Haydn, but, without losing clarity, the bow-strokes seemed more relaxed and expansive in Ravel. Eugene Drucker took the first chair for Beethoven, and demonstrated comparable mastery with perhaps a touch more of the romantic in his sound.

 The juxtaposition of the Ravel with Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet was a canny piece of program-building: both works make a great deal of play with pizzicatos, for quite different purposes in terms of the music’s expressive character, and it was instructive to hear the two in such close proximity, and in performances of rare eloquence and beauty.

 My only complaint about an evening of the highest standard of both music and performance must, as so often, stem from the Emerson Quartet’s parsimony with repeats. Of the nine that Haydn asks for in his quartet, they disregarded four—and at least three of the omissions were damaging to the musical structure. Leaving out the second one in the opening Allegro con spirito spoiled the proportions of the movement, and in the Presto minuet—really a scherzo in all but name—leaving out the two in the Da Capo reduced this exhilarating movement to infinitesimal size, its first section after the trio no more than five seconds long. If you’re going to play the music so superbly, then please—play it again, gentlemen!


Bernard Jacobson

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