Empathy and Commitment from Emerson String Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert: Emerson String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 17.11.2015. (GD)

Haydn String Quartet in G Op. 76 No. 1
Beethoven String Quartet in F Op. 135
Schubert String Quartet in G D 887


There was a most imaginative programme logic to the narrative of these three late masterpieces from the Classical Viennese period, with Haydn representing the classical paradigm of symmetry, tonal, harmonic contrast and sonata form invention, to Beethoven’s last quartet, adding more emotional intimacy together with an increased projection of dynamic and rhythmic invention, and finally to Schubert, with more contrast between heightened dissonance and a song-like lyricism, pointing to the ‘Romantic’ period. Haydn’s Op. 71 No 1 with its opening strong ‘orchestral’ sounding three chords proved to be a wonderful way of beginning such a chamber concert. It is typical of Haydn – in his seemingly endless sense of innovation and surprise – to give the impression of a fugue in the following exposition theme on celli and viola but this is not the case. Instead the theme is treated imitatively and contrapuntally, never actually developing into a fugue proper. This semblance of a fugue is carried over into the development section  with a myriad rhythmic, lyrical and tonal developments on the way, leading to the varied recapitulation and coda. Previously I had always thought of the Emerson’s as a brilliant ensemble, but sometimes sounding technically perfect while devoid of lyrical flexibility and ‘old’ world warmth and charm. But tonight everything was there – all emerging with warmth and glow of a vintage wine. They played the C major Adagio sostenuto with all the warmth and sotto voce serenity one could wish for, also playing the more agitated,dramatic sections with a superb sense of contrast. The one-in-a-bar Menuet, which actually sounds more like a brisk Beethovenian scherzo, was full of swift rhythmic energy. The minor key finale, with its persistent tarantella-like triplets and wonderful return to the tonic major in the coda was realised with a rare perception.

The lilting first subject of Beethoven’s Op. 135, developed from the interrogatory phrases of the opening, was played with  a wonderful easy sway. The lead in to the later running semi-quavers and triplets was as clear and sharp as I have heard it; as was the development section proper with its falling intervals (sevenths and seconds). The second movement brisk scherzo (no hint of the old style minuet here) with its jarring suspensions and extended trio notable for its rhythmic impetus and the wide leaps of its exuberant first violin part, was given all the thrust and energy required. Some of the sharp accents were foregrounded, but never in a way that sounded mannered or intrusive. The miraculously tranquil and beautiful Lento in D flat (with a short middle-section in D flat minor) and an elaborately varied reprise were played to perfection. Although I must admit that when I hear this music nothing (for me) comes quite near to the 1938 NBC recording Toscanini made of the Scherzo and and Lento.  I know that the mere suggestion of playing Beethoven quartets with the full strings of a symphony orchestra is now considered  ‘politically incorrect’, but Toscanini’s rhythmically light and sharp scherzo (an unmatched sense of ‘flight’), and the profundity and glowing serenity he found in the Lento are very special. The finale, with all its jesting or cryptic headings ‘Muss es sein’ (Must it be?) from the dramatic grave in F minor, to which the first notes of the (Allegro in F) give the answer ‘Est muss sein’ (It must be!) was made clear in the sense of the contrasting musical motives. But the actual message – to do with ‘a hard won decision’ – we can interpret in any way we like. The Emerson’s brought out the movement’s sometimes ‘mock’ gaiety with a sense of exhilaration, and it was something of a relief to hear their quite spontaneous, un-mannered playing of the serene and untroubled conclusion.

Schubert’s Quartet in G (1826) has never been played (recorded) as much as the great Quintet in C or the Quartet in D minor known as the ‘Death and the Maiden’. It maybe that this nomination has brought a particular popularity to the D minor Quartet? But if anything the G major Quartet is more innovative (certainly more daring in terms of tonal tension). It deserves to be performed more often. The Emersons gave a ‘big-boned’ rendition. As many have commented this is a quartet full of tonal/dynamic contrasts. This dramatic, tense conflict between G major and G minor was well punctuated from the outset. All the inversions and juxtapositons, particularly in the recapitulation, subsiding into a moment of almost haunted calm, compellingly sustained tonight. In the development the G minor tone of restless anguish and its strongly rhythmic modes of counterpoint were played with tremendous power and clarity. The E minor Andante with its elegiac main theme, given by the cello, foreshadows the sadness of the wanderer in Wnterreise. The following violent outbursts, in constellations of remote keys, were played with great force and concentration. The Unheimlich sounding ascending tremolandos  projected the mood  of  the  Walpurgisnacht, or Hauntology (to use Derrida’s metaphor). This music (sometimes compared with the power of Beethoven -,wrongly, in my view) is always associated in my mind with its use in Woody Allen’s neo-noir film ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989), about a man who hires the mob to murder his difficult mistress, and the remorse he suffers as a consequence. Both the Scherzo, with its scurrying,repeated notes, and the trio, with its  songful cello theme in G major, contrasting with the Scherzo B minor, and the final movement in 6/8 time, full of rhythmic surprises and  tonal shifts between major and minor, the seemingly light-hearted mood subtended by darker shadows and fears, were all expertly delivered.

My one criticism is that these final two movements really needed a more swift sense of movement; they are both marked to be played,respectively; Allegro vivace (fast and lively) and Allegro assai (very fast). The Emersons played these two movements at a more measured tempo, again with astounding detail and clarity, but the sense of urgency and agitation were lacking. I played the wonderful 1938 ‘Busch Quartet’ recording,(still sounding amazingly good) and right away, from the Scherzo to the finale, there was a tremendous sense of urgency, restlessness and flight, as marked by Schubert. But overall, and despite these reservations, this was a fine concert, compellingly  played with a rare sense of empathy and commitment.

No encore was offered and in a sense I felt relieved, what can really follow Schubert’s String Quartet D 887?

Geoff Diggines

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