Emerson String Quartet at Koerner Hall – Dvořák

Cypresses – 1-6
String Quartet No.10 in E flat, Op.51 (Slavonic)
String Quartet No.13 in G, Op.106

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

Reviewed by: Patrick P. L. Lam

Reviewed: 5 May, 2010
Venue: Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, Toronto

Emerson String Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGFollowing its first Dvořák recital with pianist Menahem Pressler in October last year, the Emerson String Quartet returned to Koerner Hall. There was radiant and seductive string-playing from the ensemble, with a most effective reserve for warmth and joy.

Philip Setzer led the first half-dozen Cypresses. These pieces were lifelong, personal statements from Dvořák and his idealised love towards his piano student, Josefína Čermáková. Certainly, the element of love, as well as melancholic and self-pitiful emotions, filled the core in these musical canvases: each piece was given a breath of life, like a glimpse into memories past. While one may not fully apprehend Dvořák’s admiration towards Čermáková, the Emerson members convinced with their testifying approximations, and this reached a highpoint in the last number, ‘You are my Glorious Rose’: this miniature is a trio of classical forms, Slavonic folk-elements, and Romantic gestures. The musicians’ bodily expressions and constant eye contact were integral to their interpretative excitement, such that any weight of words was as effective by the musical notes which embodied them.

The Opus 51 quartet has been considered a work of unfathomable challenges. One of the reasons is that the first three movements can easily be misinterpreted as a trio of adagios if the musicians do not adhere to a good sense of rhythm and pulse. Conforming to both animated and dynamic bowing, and led by Eugene Drucker, the Emerson Quartet provided emotionally intense but no-less smooth transitions from one passage to the next. The opening Allegro ma non troppo was well thought-out; meanwhile, the players handling of the ‘Dumka’ and the ‘Romanza’ were highlights of musical poetry and sweet melancholy. The finale conjured a just balance between music’s poetic and rustic aspects.

The G major String Quartet represents Dvořák’s universal language of poetry and was brought out beautifully in the opening Allegro moderato. Setzer, leading, was at-ease even with the intense drama symbolic in this late work. The four-part dialogue was underscored by an overall balance of interweaving lines, and a firm rhythm was maintained throughout. The Adagio was darkly reflective, the finale playful, and the coda handled with brilliant panache. This was an idiomatic and fully-committed recital, and was capped by an encore: a reprise of one of the Cypresses, ‘Nature Lies Peaceful in Slumber and Dreaming’.

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