Emerson String Quartet – 30th April

Photograph of the Emerson String Quartet

String Quartet No.13 in B flat minor, Op.138
Quartet No.14 in F sharp, Op.142
Quartet No.15 in E flat minor, Op.144

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

Reviewed by: Mark E Croasdale

Reviewed: 30 April, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Emerson Quartet has recently celebrated twenty-five years together; its undemonstrative stage presence unaffectedly epitomises the gravitas of Shostakovich’s last three string quartets.

Although the viola has a predominant role in the unsettling and compressed No.13, this interpretation never detracted from the superlative ensemble playing. Whether in the mournful opening notes, the effective gruff outburst soon thereafter or passing the unearthly high B flat over to the violins at the work’s conclusion, the individual playing was supreme but never affected. In a composition devoid of optimism, without hint of dance or jazz in the disconcerting and Kafkaesque-menace of the central ’doppio movimento’, the Emerson found resigned resolution in the final chords.

There are those who would have you believe that Shostakovich’s last years were an unremitting dirge of anguish, despair and torment. The Emerson’s balanced interpretation of Quartet 14 revealed the light amongst the shadows and uncovered warmth amongst the sarcasm. The prominent cello part provided depth and sonority while still underpinning the fearful, all-pervading malevolence that permeates the music. A fine performance was embodied by truly virtuosic playing especially in the energetic material divided between the players.

In lesser hands the final quartet can falter through its unrelenting bleakness and slow tempo. In this expansive interpretation, the Emerson’s communicated a plethora of anguished nuances and revealed a tragedy more universal than personal. A remarkable feature of the players is their ability to change tone-colour simultaneously and at will: one phrase hollow and empty, the next warm and full. Much was made of the opening dissonance but in a plaintive and unmannered way. The aggressive material that opens the second movement sounded like screams descending into piercing howls: each player maintained the same sound and mood; the contrasts revealed through different instrumentation and register. Although there are some moments of respite, especially in the full-blooded tone of the fast tremolo in the ’Intermezzo’, the lamentation continues inexorably with energetic declamations that seethe with frustration. Ultimately, however, the music is ennobling and on this performance the Emerson Quartet is the perfect medium to convey it.

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