Emerson Quartet – Three Concerts of Bach, Haydn and Beethoven (2, 4 and 6 March, Wigmore Hall)

2 March

The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross
String Quartet in A minor, Op.132

4 March

The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (Part One)
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

6 March

The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (Part Two)
String Quartet in B flat, Op.130 – given with the original finale published as Grosse Fuge, Op.133

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

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 March, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Has any other string quartet assumed as august an identification as R. W. Emerson, the originator of transcendentalism?

The Emerson is idiosyncratic in three other respects. Three of them stand up. (I presume the cellist would too, if he could.) The violinists play separated – at each end of the line-up – albeit such antiphonal effects are right for this music. Furthermore, Messrs Drucker and Setzer take turns in playing the first violin part.

Due to this arrangement, each instrumentalist – whether standing or sitting – plays out towards the audience. Hence, the Emerson projects its sound unusually effectively. (Think of a line-up of four vocalists.)

The first and second violin sounds were eminently clear and distinguishable – coming from either end of the platform. The viola, mid-placed, sang out, too. Viola and cello in unison produced gloriously rich sounds. However, during some moments of impassioned ensemble playing or where a bass-line was needed to set the pace and ground the music, the loser was the cello – but only very occasionally.

The Emerson Quartet began life in 1976. Three decades’ experience shows up in the confidence and ease with which they open each movement or section – easing well-practised feet into well-worn shoes. Their inter-member glances and checks were brief – another sign of having been here before, many times.

These are four master craftsmen. They approach notes, chords, phrases and forms as a master joiner might handle wood, familiarising its grain, texture, markings and shape. Over the years, the Emerson’s personnel have clearly had many a discussion over matters of tone, volume, sound quality, ensemble and technique – over matters like the required ping of a particular pizzicato or the exact degree of appropriate vibrato.

Thus, the keynote of the Emerson’s playing is probity – respect for the text and eliciting the quality of sound that will serve the text best. (Mannered ’interpretations’ – wayward, wilful, attention-seeking – lie outside of its pale.)

Each movement, opening and phrase was carefully and judiciously considered. Where familiarity made it safe to push at the sonic bounds, calculated risks were taken. The playing style is redolent of judicious musicality. Nothing was left to chance. Overall, these four string-players offered us a rare musical gravitas – playing with controlled sensibility and the utmost care.

The Seven Last Words on the Cross was most impressive. This work of sober pieces can sound monotonous. Not here. The beginning of each ’Word’ was carefully presented – tonal differences of instrumental combination (violins alone/ violin with viola/violin with cello) heralded a new dawn of experience; a main key-change proved a significant sonic event. The vibrato at the start was sensitive yet minimal (almost classical, almost ’authentic’). Later, the vibrato changed subtly – nicely, exactly judged – becoming ever more present and intense. In addition, the first violin, in each of his three ’solos’, achieved a quieter, more hushed etherealness. This ever-softening, ever-more intense vibrato was an exquisite technical refinement. The noisy cataclysm of the finale came as a brusque shock – as intended.

Bach did not allocate the parts in his contrapuntal tour de force to any particular instruments. Various combinations have been essayed – ranging from harpsichord to full orchestra (e.g. Hermann Scherchen).

Four string performers constitute a perfectly valid combination – four musical parts to play, each conceived linearly, yet designed to gel.

During The Art of Fugue, the Emerson Quartet came into its own, the work played in two parts, each performance opening with the Contrapunctus 1 and closing with the poignant, unfinished Contrapunctus 18.

Misha Donat’s programme note states that in the manuscript, Bach’s fugues “demonstrate a progressive increase in contrapuntal complexity”. Given that a single extended performance without a break is over-taxing, the players arranged for each ’half’ to move from simpler to more complex.

The players gave us an especially arresting presentation of Bach’s extraordinary feat, strengths coming to the fore: care over openings, the barest vibrato, steady and meticulous tonal values, clarity of line, respect for the text, motioning but stately speeds, concern for sonic texture, and attentive phrasing.

This Bach playing was sensitive – too grave, bare and austere to be romantic, yet too deeply rooted in the romantic tradition to be ’authentic’ (e.g. not fast, scratchy, non-phrased or ill-tuned!) These masterly musicians gave the notes their full value and sonority. This was the Emerson Quartet’s finest hour.

The Beethoven had its moments too. I particularly liked the build-up of tension in the opening to the A minor; the fragments of sound that are passed between violin and cello in the last movement had an unusually satisfying solidity. This gave the oddity of the fragments a decided, telling impact.

A key moment occurred during the second concert. Before the interval came the searing, heartfelt and unfinished Contrapunctus 18. After the interval, came the fugue opening Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet. The two matched perfectly! Beethoven’s gravity seemed to be a continuation of Bach’s gravity. What an extraordinary insight and discovery, I thought.

Then came second thoughts – crystallising the interpretation for me. This was not parity or equity: this was Beethoven deliberately played as if he were Bach. I had stumbled across a house style. All the mentioned-above virtues were there. There was, admittedly, greater vigour too, together with a keen awareness of the awkward and urgent quirkiness of Beethoven’s ’late’ style – those dazzling, skittish fragments from a darting musical intellect.

Something was missing, though. This Beethoven was too well practised, too well considered. The Emerson Quartet, here, was a victim of its own caring virtues. This Beethoven was non-daring. It took no risks. It did not hold you by the throat and keep you on the edge of your seat or have you gasp at some unexpected wisp of astonishing beauty.

Beethoven’s last quartets are trips on a roller coaster; your stomach leaps into your mouth as you hurtle from one musical idea to the next. Not here. The Emerson Quartet made appropriate noises, often vigorously. But the players stood the while on terra firma. The real action was above their heads, out of their reach.

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