Emerson String Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Bach, Mozart & Beethoven

Bach, arr. Mozart
Fugue in E, K405
Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K546
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 14 November, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

An intriguing examination of the ‘art of fugue’ was at the core of this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Emerson String Quartet, now in its 35th-season with personnel unchanged.

Emerson Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGMozart’s preoccupation with the music of Bach and Handel in the early 1780s yielded a number of works concentrating notably on elaborate counterpoint. A side product of this was the arrangement of five Fugues from Book II of the Well-tempered Clavier. In the Emerson musicians’ hands this was unfortunately ‘chocolate box’ Bach, sugary-sweet and with the lines between parts blurred so that the contrapuntal invention could not be easily determined. The Adagio and Fugue, one of Mozart’s more-serious utterances, was more successful, the full tone remaining but more suited to a work that also works well for string orchestra. The Adagio was dramatic, as was the opening of the Fugue, though momentum flagged until the closing pages, where the players were more incisive and convincing.

Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer rotate First Violin duties, a typical Emerson practice, with the former taking up the position for Beethoven’s Opus 131, which begins with a fugue. Previous Emerson interpretations have stressed the fourth note of the theme to an undue degree and this was again the case, though the performance unfolded relatively smoothly thereafter. There was however a curious detachment to the emotive qualities of this wonderful music, and little to no attempt to bring through the airy nature of the second movement or the recitative with which it is connected to the fourth. The ‘Theme and Variations’ began with an unhelpful slide from Drucker but settled and charmed more in its quieter passages without ever convincing that it was the centrepiece of the work. Rather the emotional intensity was loaded towards the finale, for after a scherzo lacking rapid interplay, there was an Adagio of unexpected poignancy. The finale was easily the most impressive part about this performance, a strident call to arms that was complemented nicely by the florid second theme. As the end approached the tempo slowed expressively, before the musicians raced to the final bars, wrapping up an oddly lopsided performance.

There was an unexpectedly imaginative choice of encore in the Fourth of Webern’s Five Movements, Opus 5, brilliantly performed and vividly shaded, the capacity audience holding its breath for the relatively long (for Webern!) duration of one minute and 45 seconds.

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