Emerson Quartet – 17 November

String Quartet No.3
String Quartet in G minor, Op.20/3
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Emerson Quartet
[Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola) & David Finckel (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 17 November, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

When the Emerson Quartet play, even when it is not underneath the Wigmore Hall’s mural, the sun is always shining brightly over them. They have recently celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary, and continue to play with the enthusiasm and freshness of performers discovering a score for the first time; and also with the optimism that the most tortured piece must still have a happy ending. Here, then, was no terrified Maiden initiated into the mysteries of the infinite by a friendly, yet sinister Death, but a skittish girl blithely dancing over the freshly-dug earth of her own grave. Here was no routine piece of Haydn’s classicism, but a piece of his most fragmented and tortured drama magically restored to health by the sheer exuberance and virtuosity of the quartet’s pianissimo playing.

Three nights previously, the Takács Quartet had explored the quartet-medium as the most profound means by which music can reach the inner sense: the quartet as a metaphor of European unconscious.From the Emerson was a view of the quartet as an opportunity for display and co-operation by four well-matched individuals, perfectly in sympathy with one another, but as concerned to project their expressivity as experience it privately. While these two views correspond roughly with the European and American traditions of quartet performance, it is certain that the Emerson represent the extreme of the American view, whose technical expertise, self-confidence and immediate charm are exemplary, even overwhelming.Whether because of the Wigmore’s acoustic, or simply to make them easier seen, the Emerson (except the cellist) played standing up.

Bartók’s quartets are never easy to listen to, and No.3 is the most compressed of all. The Emerson’s clarity and sureness, bringing out melodic lines, making the most of the tonal beauty of each folk-like tune, and constantly displaying the rhythmical precision and momentum for which they are famed, made an extremely refractory work completely accessible.Likewise, the opening Haydn was in no danger of being forgotten in the anonymity of a form for which the composer wrote so many works. This was “Storm and Stress” at its most disturbed and chromatic, yet always kept effortlessly in order by the Emerson’s simple joy in unfolding of each phrase.

With the Schubert, it was easier to understand why the Emerson, for all their scholarly mastery, have sometimes been accused of skating over the surface of music. There was not a single moment that betrayed the composer’s exhaustion and despair, the relentless jauntiness and bounce challenging us to reassess its identity as a tragic work.

It was an interpretation as light as the Takács playing Schubert’s Quintet had been dark. Profits from a recently released biography of the Emerson are being donated to the families of the victims of September 11. We could not have asked for more life-enhancing playing than this. Where the Takács’s guest cellist, Natalie Clein, spoke of the “beauty of death”, this performance proclaimed that beauty itself defeats mortality.

For Schubert, the Emerson followed their usual practice of swapping first violinists. Philip Setzer’s slimmer, more refined sound was less suited to the lead part, but his delight in the dance rhythms and in adding swoops and slides gave an appropriately Viennese flavour to the piece. Indeed, at times, it seemed as if strolling players were serenading us in a Heurige (wine tavern). Perhaps this was how Schubert intended the work, not as an enactment of anguish, but as triumphant repudiation of earthly sufferings.

For an encore, virtuosity went step further yet. The racing tempo and theatricality of the Beethoven scherzo (from Op.130) showed there was no attempt at anything beyond entertainment. The Emerson have long been champions of modern music; it is good to see that even in the most traditional repertoire, they are challenging established views and reminding that every repetition of the familiar is a new performance.

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