Emerson Bring Together Beethoven and the Second Viennese School

GermanyGermany Beethoven, Webern, Berg, Schoenberg: Emerson Quartet, Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Berlin Musikfest 2015, Kammermusiksaal, Berlin 10.9.2015 (MC)

Emerson String Quartet (Berliner Festspiele | Musikfest Berlin 2015)
Emerson String Quartet (c) Liza Mazzucco

Beethoven: String Quartet No.16, Op. 135 (1826)
Webern: Three Pieces for string quartet and vocalist (1913)
Berg: Lyric Suite for string quartet and vocalist (1926)
Schoenberg: String Quartet with vocalist (1907/08)

It was good to hear the Emerson Quartet again in an absorbing programme, a mix of progressive and traditional works, from Vienna based composers which could have been entitled “Beethoven meets the Second Viennese School”. The distinction of the Emerson with soprano Barbara Hannigan was enough to virtually fill the Kammermusiksaal, Berlin with its 1,100 capacity.

Opening the recital was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, his last string quartet written just five months before his death. After the monumental four late quartets this opus 135 score is more conventional and seems easily appealing on the ear requiring less concentration from an audience. Next the first of the three works of the Second Viennese School, Webern’s Three Piecesfor string quartet and vocalist from 1913. Lasting just over two and a half minutes to perform in total, the first and last movements are the shortest with the central movement titled Langsam ‘Schmerz immer Blick nach oben’ having a vocal part sung here by soprano Barbara Hannigan. Sadly the programme booklet notes did not provide any details of the author or any of the text.

The final work in the first half of the recital was Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet and vocalist from 1926. In the work are references to Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde which are often overlooked amid the focus given to the twelve-tone method of composition. Musicologist George Perle discovered that Berg’s inspiration behind the Lyric Suitewas Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, a married woman with whom he was having an affair. Dedicated secretly to his mistress the score contains a number of coded references embedded in the writing. The final movement was revealed to be a vocal setting of a sad and desolate Baudelaire sonnet in a Stefan George translation.

After the interval a performance of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 requiring a vocalist, and owing to its highly progressive nature is regarded as a seminal work in music history. From 1907/08 the four movement score was composed at a time of artistic success for Schoenberg and also of emotional crisis owing to his wife’s affair with painter Ricard Gerstl. In the third (Litany) and fourth (Rapture) movements are vocal parts of text from poet Stefan George.

The last time I attended a recital by the Emerson was in 2013 at the packed Hercules Hall, Munich and the final international recital of the original line-up. It was indeed fascinating to hear the Emerson now that cellist David Finckel, such a rock solid performer, has been replaced by Paul Watkins. With such polished ensemble and immaculate intonation there was an unforced naturalness from the quartet who demonstrated a rare ability to convey a special humanity in its playing. The precision and clean articulation of the Emerson was certainly an advantage in the often steely cool, austere music of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. Initially I missed Finckel’s sweet timbre but soon got used to Watkins’ darker toned cello. Soprano Barbara Hannigan was imperious in her singing with a spirited and remarkable stage presence displaying one of the most expressive vocals I have heard in many years.

This recital at the Kammermusiksaal, Berlin was a triumph for the Emerson and Barbara Hannigan and will live long in the memory.

Michael Cookson

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