Emerson String Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Mozart’s Prussian Quartets

String Quartet in D, K575
String Quartet in B flat, K589
String Quartet in F, K590

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

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 13 November, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The three string quartets that Mozart composed in 1789 – his last such music – were commissioned by the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, an enthusiastic cellist. These ‘Prussian’ Quartets do not carry the reputation of the earlier ‘Haydn’ set, but they do mark a departure for Mozart in presenting a gentler, more conversational style of writing, not least, and not surprisingly, with more emphasis on the cello line.

Despite the Emerson musicians’ familiarisation with this repertoire (they have recently recorded it) these Wigmore Hall performances were disappointingly routine and dull, tetchy even, containing little warmth and lightness. In the slow movements Mozart’s music is as intimate as it has ever been, but there was precious little of that on display. At times the musicians seemed almost afraid (or unable) to find some inner peace within the music; the achingly lovely melody of K575’s Andante was given short thrift by the thin tone of Philip Setzer’s violin and a matter-of-fact approach from his colleagues, turning serenity into a dirge. Even swapping first-violin duties for the remaining two works did little to alter the mood or shape of the performances. Indeed the other two Andantes were even more problematic, being leaden, heavy-handed and shorn of emotional resonance.

The three minuets were better, but not much; efficient but unsmiling. There was little sense of the joy of dance here, no deftness of touch to send the springy rhythms on their way. The finales worked best, the musicians on happier ground with more-secure ensemble. A solid account of Mozart’s transcription of a Fugue from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provided the encore.

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