Emerson Quartet & Menahem Pressler at Queen Elizabeth Hall

String Quartet in E flat, Op.51
Cypresses – Nos.1-4
String Quartet No.1 (The Kreutzer Sonata)
Piano Quintet in A, Op.81

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

Menahem Pressler (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 2 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Emerson Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGA particular pleasure of this, the first of the Emerson Quartet’s three London recitals this week, was its collaboration with Menahem Pressler – one of the founding members of the now-disbanded Beaux Arts Trio – in a winning performance of Dvořák’s A major Piano Quintet. In the gentle opening piano statement – accompanied by the expressive cello of David Finckel – and also in the second subject introduced by Lawrence Dutton’s viola, it was clear that this was to be a performance imbued with affection. In the ‘Dumka’ slow movement the initial elegiac mood and ensuing richly-textured variations were touchingly done, piano and strings blending beautifully. And the playing in the finale was by turns ideally tender and vivacious.

Part one of the programme was not as impressive. Right from the start of Dvorak’s E flat String Quartet there was a certain earnestness to the playing that did not seem fully attuned to the deeply-felt nature of the piece; nor was there quite enough zest in the second movement (another Dumka). While the playing in both the ‘Romanze’ – arguably the emotional core of the work – and the vigorous finale was technically immaculate, the players did not entirely realise the music’s potential.

Menahem Pressler. Photograph: menahempressler.org. ©2009 Menahem PresslerIn the first four of Dvořák’s Cypresses a greater degree of warmth was on display. But it was in the more dramatic Second (‘Death Reigns In Many a Human Breast’) that the players truly hit the mark.

Neither was the turbulent character of Janáček’s First Quartet (The Kreutzer Sonata) ideally conveyed. This piece, based on Tolstoy’s novel, needs a high level of intensity during its 17 minutes or so duration, in order to communicate the dramatic story of an unhappy marriage, adultery, and murder. In this reading the emotional temperature seemed a little too restrained, calculated even, and while the tremolo passages in the second movement were done chillingly enough, overall there was a dearth of unbridled passion.

While Dvořák’s Piano Quintet was the big success of the recital, the substantial encore – the slow movement of Brahms’s Piano Quintet – was scarcely less pleasurable. The limpid playing of Menahem Pressler, together with rich-toned and now beautifully balanced playing from the Emerson musicians, brought further balm to the soul.

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