String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 (Serioso)
String Quartet No.4
Octet in E flat, Op.20
Emerson String Quartet [Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola) & Paul Watkins (cello)]
Calidore String Quartet [Jeffrey Myers & Ryan Meehan (violins), Jeremy Berry (viola) & Estelle Choi (cello)] [Mendelssohn]
Reviewed by: Violet Bergen
Reviewed: 21 October, 2016
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
The Emerson String Quartet in its 40th-anniversary season is celebrating with two recitals in Alice Tully Hall. In the first, Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ set the substantial tone. Written during a tumultuous period when the composer was dealing with deteriorating health and finances, this dense work is true to his own nickname. Without overpowering his peers, Philip Setzer led an energetic and inspired account with a well-blended tone that stayed within the darker side of the color palette, becoming more distilled in quieter sections but never losing concentration.
In his Fourth String Quartet Bartók employs nonconformist modalities and novel playing techniques. It’s an ideal pairing with the Beethoven, a 20th-century counterpart of density, and complex development of tiny musical gestures. Eugene Drucker took the first chair, and although this should not have mattered since the parts are equally weighted, there was a noticeable detriment to the performance quality. This arch-like five-movement work has its climax in the central Non troppo lento, featuring solo laments. Paul Watkins, an Emerson member since 2013, showcased a powerful tone, his cello seeming to mimic a voice expressing complexly beautiful longing. The second and fourth movements were less emotionally convincing. Although the players’ accuracy was impressive, greater variation in color was not achieved. The outer movements were high in energy but rather literal; the under-shaped phrases sounded machine-like and quieter passages lacked the required ardent drive.
Ultimately the Emersons were joined by the Calidore Quartet for Mendelssohn’s Octet. With the addition of this younger, Emerson-mentored, ensemble, the balance went askew, becoming overly loud, bass-heavy, and murky. The first-violinist needs to shine, and Drucker was not up to par. In the opening movement his phrasing was stilted, accents were overly emphatic and timbre was unpleasantly shrill. The Andante was the biggest disappointment: melodrama replaced sweet serenity, rhythmic pulse was emphasized to the detriment of the melodic line, and the climax had an excessive build up, becoming brutally hammered. The Scherzo showcased the musicians’ impressive skills, with precisely coordinated ricochet bowing. In the Finale, the musicians at last found their footing. The fugal writing allowed for equality, and the Calidore members’ infectious energy transformed the environment. The players not now needing to calibrate intensity, such youthful energy befitted this masterpiece by the teenaged Mendelssohn.