Emerson Quartet at Queen Elizabeth Hall [Mendelssohn, Adès & Beethoven]

String Quartet in E flat, Op.44/3
The Four Quarters [UK premiere]
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Emerson Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGAs part of Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Season, the Emerson Quartet gave us something great, something new, and something more deserving of our attention. The latter is the Mendelssohn, rarely spoken of as among the elite of composers, yet he has strong claims to be so considered. His E flat String Quartet, the third of his Opus 44 collection, resides in sheer mastery, a craftsmanship that belies the endeavour at the point of creation. This may not be music as transcending as a ‘late’ Beethoven quartet, but in the case of the E flat work, it is musical ingenuity that is lyrically charged, smooth without being bland, and Classical enough to be looking back to Haydn without sapping Mendelssohn’s own very distinctive Romantic personality. The members of the Emerson Quartet may not produce the most refulgent of sounds or are always the most accurate of ensembles, but such an honest and rough-hewn approach (all but the cellist standing) brings its own rewards, especially in the first movement’s most incisive passages, then the scurrying and harmonically daring scherzo, and the perpetuum mobile finale; yet, paradoxically, it was the sweetly nostalgic slow movement, a continuous song, that suspended time through the Emerson members’ loving and unforced playing.

Composed for the Emerson Quartet, Thomas Adès’s The Four Quarters was first heard in New York last month. Adès’s opening gambit, ‘Nightfalls’, requires very precise pitches (which it may not have received on every note in this UK premiere), and somewhat Bartókian in its increasing intensity, yet such simple exchanges of ideas palled before the music ceased. The pizzicatos of ‘Morning Dew’ also recalled Bartók, as well as Britten’s Simple Symphony; while ‘Days’ is rather American-sounding in its gentle pastoral rolling – rather Coplandesque and delightful for it, if hardly “stunning” at its climax. As for the mechanics of ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, with a time-signature of 25/16, clockwork motion leads to melodic flowering, yet not without a feeling of ‘been there’ before the close.

Philip Setzer retained first-violin position for Opus 131 (Eugene Drucker had led the Mendelssohn) for an inconsistent performance, the opening slow Fugue invested with much concentration to become hypnotic (but which was not indicative of the account as a whole). There followed a spirited dance and the third movement became a potent transition into the heart of the work, a set of Variations that here could be harried at times, existential at others, Lawrence Dutton and David Finckel holding their own court at enchanted moments, and also with an earthiness of the ‘bump’ variety. The fleeting scherzo that is the fifth movement was simply too fast (for all that it is marked Presto), straining of executive poise and togetherness as well as rather straightening of the truculent rhythms; come the sixth movement, the Emerson musicians took us into a private and eloquent place, and they were then emphatically resolute with the finale, heroic and impulsive as required. No encore was offered, and none was needed.

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