Emerson String Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Haydn Seven Last Words

The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 16 November, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Emerson Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGHaydn’s striking meditation Seven Last Words has long been a part of the Emerson Quartet’s repertoire, and these musicians’ performance in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert was remarkable for its unity of voice.

This was a swift performance, lasting little over fifty minutes, the players rarely adopting a genuine Adagio tempo at any point in the score and avoiding rubato as an expressive tool. Technically the performance was almost without flaw, with exact intonation and the depth of sound that you might come to expect from a small string orchestra.

Unfortunately some of these merits seemed less appropriate for the music, with a glossy sheen applied to much of the sound, obscuring the occasionally stark response to the text. With liberally applied vibrato the approach was much nearer to Beethoven than a Baroque-influenced drama, the resulting interpretation always thoughtful but frequently spot-lit. So it was that Haydn’s stark opening Introduction was tempered rather by a richness of tone and the occasional application of portamento; the third of the seven Sonatas, beginning with a promising lack of affectation, soon found itself engulfed once again in a thick blanket of sound.

There were however some genuinely beautiful moments, which tended to be when the music was softer. Haydn’s vision of paradise in the Second Sonata was beautifully painted over thrumming pizzicato from viola and cello, while in the Fifth Sonata the phrasing from Setzer was notably lighter and restrained. The Sixth, vividly setting the rhythms of ‘Consummatum est’, was where we felt music of genuine anguish, its development argued with a real passion.

With emotions now notably charged, the final Sonata made a particularly powerful impact. Initially the musicians were much too loud, even with mutes applied, but as the Sonata drew to a close, the composer depicting the departing spirit of Christ, they found a whispered pianissimo, bringing out a marked contrast with the savage Earthquake that followed. In this the edges were suitably roughened, with bows heavy on the string, and the intonation was allowed to wander a little, which made the music seem unhinged. It was a suitable response, and made a powerful ending to an initially cool performance.

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