Intriguingly Fresh Haydn and Bartók from the Emerson Quartet

CanadaCanada Haydn, Bartók, Dvořák: Emerson Quartet (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins, Lawrence Dutton, viola, Paul Watkins, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, 31.1.2016. (GN)

Emerson Quartet

Haydn: String Quartet in C major, Op. 76, No. 3, ‘Emperor’ 

Bartók: String Quartet No. 4

Dvořák: String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, ‘American’

I have always been fascinated by the effects of personnel changes in ensembles, and the replacement of David Finckel by Paul Watkins in the Emerson’s cello slot two years ago gave me some initial food for thought (see review). Many commentators have implied that there are few observable differences between the earlier group and now, and that this transition was no more than a momentary hitch before reinstating the Emerson legacy of the past. But this hardly gives credit to the vast resources Paul Watkins brings to the ensemble, both in the form of a slightly different interpretative outlook and a slightly different type of sensitivity. It also ignores the fact that many repertoire pieces have not even been tried yet with the new cellist; thus, many of the current Emerson concerts are first-time voyages of sorts. I do think that the initial tasks of sound testing and achieving the right balance in ensemble have just about finished, so it is the interpretative and attitudinal novelties that become of interest. Since the ensemble has made annual visits to Vancouver for 35-plus years, it has been a rare opportunity to track incremental adjustments. On the basis of this concert, I did find a striking new freshness in the Haydn and Bartók in the first half; the following Dvořák maintained more remnants of the past.

Anticipating the Emerson’s innovative project to bring together Haydn’s Op. 76 quartets with Beethoven’s contemporaneous Op. 18 compositions, we heard Haydn’s great ‘Emperor’ Quartet, No. 3 of the former set. One thing about this ensemble’s earlier Haydn and Mozart is that, while wonderfully-worked out musically and tonally, it still remained on the ‘large’ side. But not at this concert: this was a pretty well perfect scale, and the leaner string timbres were right in line with what we expect these days. In fact, this was some of the purest, most refined playing of the Classical repertoire that I have seen from this group, with a lovely, finespun interpretative line but not a hint of excess weight or additional emphasis. There was a compelling concentration, all players attentively listening to each other.

Some might find this reading understated but, if so, it more than compensated in other ways. The quartet captured the underlying feeling of rustic frolic in the opening movement while the musical integration within the violin duo at the beginning of the Adagio was revealing. The ‘cantabile’ marking later on was well-caught, giving the right sense of underlying flow. The two remaining movements carried the work well, very accurate with the right sense of motion and eagerness in the finale. Slightly reserved, maybe, but I was absolutely taken by the jeweled precision, balance and unity in the whole. The reading perhaps also conveyed more intimacy and authenticity of feeling than in past years.

If anything, the Bartók Quartet No. 4 was even finer, again establishing leaner timbres than previously and drawing one closer to the textures and nerve ends that Bartók might have thought about originally. I did feel a genuine freshness of discovery  ̶  and involving it was. The string projection not only exhibited striking fineness and flexibility, but there was also an extra intensity to the articulation, again as if all players were working strongly off each other’s commitment. The centerpiece of the work’s arch is the wonderfully inward slow movement, and here Paul Watkins was quite stunning in his heartfelt, selfless presentation of the musing cello theme. The finale was also arresting, finding both keen coherence and variety, and establishing a fine sense of resolution in the tricky rhythms and dynamics of the closing pages. The only unfortunate dramatic moment did not come from the score. About a quarter of the way through this movement, Eugene Drucker’s bow collapsed, leaving him with a circular bouquet of horsehair in his hand. We see strings break often enough but this type of event is a pretty rare  ̶ and more expensive too! But this had no consequence for one of the finest performances of the Bartók Fourth I have heard in recent years.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet after the intermission did not leave the same mark, throwing me back a bit to the past. Make no mistake, the Emerson’s recorded Dvořák is very fine and testifies to their sheer intelligence in negotiating a repertoire in a way that all the music falls naturally into place. But the ‘American’ Quartet is an elusive piece: no matter how one gets things right objectively, it is still very personal and requires a very exact emotional identification with what it says. The Emerson’s texture for this was thicker than earlier in the concert, with a more characteristic robustness. Nonetheless, my principal concern was that romantic feeling was somewhat stylized, being too public and generalized to fit with the intimacy of the conception.

The work’s core, of course, is the lovely slow movement, and here is where all the angst and intensity generated by violinist Eugene Drucker seemed just too much for this simple folk melody. (Of course, I would probably have a lot of angst too if I had just broken my bow!) I’m not saying that more restraint has to be the answer (as in the Pavel Haas Quartet’s celebrated recent recording), since a quick glance back to the classic Janáček Quartet traversal of the 1960s reveals ample romantic feeling. But both of these earlier performances succeed in two things: they set the utterance within a consuming stillness, and both make the expression intensely contemplative and private. One did not have to wander very far to see what might be needed: when Paul Watkins took up the closing cello passages in this movement, the private nature of his utterance immediately cast a spell over the concert hall. The final two movements were well-drawn and purposive, with commanding energy at the end of the finale, but I still felt some degree of detachment from all the shades of Dvořák’s buoyant spirit. There was little feeling of ‘dance’ in the Scherzo. At the same time, there could hardly be a more joyous, carefree passage than the opening jig figure on the violins in the last movement. Yet the phrases were not really pointed or lifted to express this.

This was an absolutely engrossing concert, not only because of the sense of discovery witnessed in the first half, but also because of the difference between the playing in the first half and the second. It is this sort of performance variance – a tug-of-war between the new and the old  ̶  which one naturally expects to find when a great ensemble is in the process of redefining itself.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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