From the Emerson String Quartet, Refreshed Artistic Powers

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn: Emerson String Quartet, Roberto Díaz (viola), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.2.2016 (BJ)

Schubert: String Quartet in A minor, D. 804, Rosamunde
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10, Op. 118
Mendelssohn: String Quintet in B-flat major, Op. 87

In such a close-knit human organism as a string quartet, a change of personnel can occasion sadness, in that we sometimes have to bid farewell to a performer we admire. Often, however, the replacement may bring a breath of fresh air to the group’s performances. This is not to say that David Finckel was ever a less than commanding and artistically rewarding presence in the Emerson String Quartet’s line-up; but Welshman Paul Watkins, who succeeded Finckel as the ensemble’s cellist in 2013, has had a salubrious effect on its playing, which, if now a tad less opulent in tone than it used to be, has taken on a compensatingly increased directness and linear clarity.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me most forcibly about the performances in this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert was the realization that their texture never degenerated into some kind of conventional melody-and-accompaniment pattern. Rather, the independence of line—especially in the Schubert and Mendelssohn works, where that quality is most important—always presented the clear picture of four distinct instruments and musical minds joined in true polyphony.

In that context, moreover, while I have always warmly admired violist Lawrence Dutton, it was borne in on me for the first time at this concert what a phenomenal powerhouse he is in the middle of the Emerson’s texture. Perhaps not since Bernard Zaslav’s tenure in the Fine Arts Quartet back in the early 1970s has a violist’s seminal contribution to a group’s artistic and technical character demonstrated so clearly why Mozart, when he joined Haydn and other friends and played the viola in string quartets, liked to be “in the middle of the harmony.”

Surrounding Dutton’s firm and richly characterized line, Philip Setzer, who played first violin in the first half of the program, and Eugene Drucker, who took that part over in the Mendelssohn, were free to play with their contrasting repertoires of tone and phrasing, while Watkins made his equally compelling contribution to an ensemble texture that never strayed beyond the bounds of lucidity.

The two classical/romantic works on the program were both beautifully done. The minuet of the Schubert sounded perhaps a tad jauntier than usual, with no loss to the drama and pathos of the work as a whole. The Mendelssohn, with Curtis Institute president Robert Díaz joining the group as second violist, was at once thrilling and sensitive; it served as yet another confirmation of the composer’s long overdue and welcome readmission in critical circles to the pantheon of truly great masters. And Shostakovich’s No. 10, one of the finest and most gripping of his fifteen utterances in the genre, drew from the Emersons a performance of touching gravity and positively terrifying force and intensity.

Bernard Jacobson

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