Emerson Quartet – 3

Bach, arr. Mozart
The Well-tempered Clavier – Book II: Fugue in E [BWV879 / K405]
The Art of Fugue, BWV1080 – Contrapunctus Nos.10, 11, 12 & 18
String Quartet ‘Terra Memoria’ [UK premiere]
String Quartet in C, Op.59/3 (Razumovsky)

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

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 12 November, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Emerson Quartet has been around for over 30 years and has pursued technically perfect quartet-playing. To the musicians credit they have performed new works and more obscure parts of the repertory. At the Wigmore Hall it was standing-room-only for the third of their ‘Razumovsky’ recitals.

The Emerson opened with Mozart’s arrangement of a Bach Fugue from The Well-tempered Clavier. I rarely find arrangements – whatever the genius of the perpetrator – of these works satisfying. These are supreme masterpieces and multi-instrument transcriptions only detract from their immense power and spirituality. As Dennis Matthews said of full-strings arrangements of the late Beethoven quartets, this is like arriving at the summit of Everest by helicopter. In this work and following selection of Contrapunctus, the Emerson’s dynamic and expressive range was too limited and emotionally constrained to bring these arrangements to life, or convey the works’ sense of conversation and their startling key changes.

Kaija SaariahoKaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria was first performed at Carnegie Hall this June. Some composers have a rather unfortunate habit of giving OTT with written descriptions of their work, and Saariaho is no exception. Apparently the work is about how we remember – via experience and changing feelings – the dead. The composer explains the work’s title thus: “(It) … refers to two words which are full of rich association; to earth and memory. Here earth refers to my material and memory to the way I’m working on it”. There appeared to be two opening ideas, one a pizzicato song with heavily chromatic underpinning and the other a march-like variation on this. After a more acerbic section, the opening theme returns and there was a clearly discernible four-part structure to the work. Unfortunately there were also high-lying dissonant passages which I had hoped had died out in the late-nineties and passages which would have been more at home in a late-twentieth-century horror-movie.

In the Beethoven the slow introduction was bland, the sense of searching for a key understated, and the first violin was sharp. The main allegro was initially buoyant, but the dance elements were absent, there was no sense of conversation and no drama, even at the climax of the development. Throughout the movement the Emerson players were averse to using staccato and sforzando, presumably because this would compromise the beauty of their sound and line. At the start of the sublime Andante, the cello pizzicato was emphatic and initially there was a sense of melancholy. Unfortunately this quickly gave way to something bland and sonically beautiful. There was no true emotion to be heard in a single note or phrase. Smoothness dominated the remaining two movements. In the minuet the opening theme was elegant, but there was no tonal change for the trio. To say that the finale was fast would be an understatement – a presto molto, rather than allegro molto. In terms of technique the Emerson was virtually perfect, but in terms of musicality and emotion they were seriously flawed. I felt emotionally short-changed by this group’s obsession with sound and technical perfection.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 10 January 2007
  • Wigmore Hall

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content