Emerson Quartet – Razumovsky 1

Bach, arr. Mozart
The Well-tempered Clavier – Book II: Fugue in E flat [BWV876 / K405]
The Art of Fugue, BWV1080 – Contrapunctus Nos.1-4
String Quartet No.4
String Quartet in F, Op.59/1 (Razumovsky)

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 November, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Emerson String Quartet. Photograph: Richard Perry/The New York TimesIn some respects, it was the ‘extra’ that encapsulated the disappointments of this Emerson Quartet recital – the scherzo from Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet (suitable for an encore?) that scurried with a decided lack of poise and shape … even the notes themselves were touch and go. The opening items of the concert were less than inspiring, too; rather functional, imprecisely tuned accounts of fugal music – that maybe as pieces do not sit well with a public outing, especially the inconsequential Mozart arrangement. The Bach offers food for the brain – always welcome – but this seemed no more than exercises.

It’s difficult to stylistically pin-down Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952). He is a very prolific composer; sometimes at the cutting-edge of Modernism, sometimes taking various steps back. Surprisingly the 22-minute Fourth String Quartet, completed in 1981, offers little challenge – unless the whole of 20th-century music is anathema – for it inhabits a distinct Bartókian world (and, to a lesser extent, a Janáčekian one). From the aggressive opening unisons a terse argument develops, free and intense, and continues into the second movement before a ‘nervous collapse’ into a maybe-nostalgic counterbalance of melodies (somewhat recalling Schoenberg’s own Romantic impulses). The finale is slow – fragile and icy – and while the surface is ruffled, the end seems to be a question-mark (or a cop-out) through col legno effects.

The first of the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets was decidedly uneven. As recorded, often closely and harshly, the Emerson Quartet can seem to place intimidation above warmth of communication; heard live, in an excellent acoustic, one is aware of less unforced playing, even a twinkle in the eye, the latter most supplied by David Finckel, smiling upwards to his three standing colleagues (although Lawrence Dutton seems the most probing of the foursome). Thus the cello melodies that open the first and last movements were attractively spontaneous, the playing as a whole outgoing and for the moment, yet lapses of intonation and shortfalls of tone were worrying reoccurrences; the second movement scherzo, lacking variegation, seemed over-long while the Adagio molto – rather pushed along – failed to unravel the depths of the music.

Two further Emerson/Wigmore concerts complete the Razumovsky triptych as well as continuing the fugal and ‘new music’ design.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 8 January 2008
  • Further concerts at Wigmore Hall on 10 & 12 November
  • Wigmore Hall

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