Emerson String Quartet – Brahms Plus (1)

String Quartet in C minor, Op.18/4
String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51/1
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34

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

Gilbert Kalish (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Emerson Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGThings seem to come in threes for the Emerson Quartet. Just a few months ago the group visited Wigmore Hall for three recitals centred on Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ opuses; now the New York-based musicians have returned for Brahms’s string quartet-threesome together with some of his other chamber music plus guest appearances from Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart.

Some comments passed on the recent Wigmore series matched by own thoughts, that the Emerson members then were technically fallible and rather non-communicative. Not so on this occasion, an evening of superb music-making that began with a rigorous and potent account of the fourth-published of Beethoven’s Opus 18 collection in which the viola of Lawrence Dutton, standing outside-right – all but the cellist standing – was particularly present and thrusting. The middle movements enjoyed role-reversal – a scherzo of poise and wit, dancing elegantly but with motion and a Minuet that is more like a scherzo, here driven and shadowy. The finale enjoyed glint-in-the-eye exchanges from four gentlemen-musicians having fun and saving something for a devilish increase in speed for the coda.

Johannes BrahmsThe Emerson Quartet has recently recorded Brahms’s three string quartets (plus the Piano Quintet with Leon Fleisher, tonight it was Gilbert Kalish) and, in this London recital, both works were performed with mastery and insight – compelling to listen to. The first of Brahms’s quartets flowed eagerly with leanness of sound and thus avoided appearing turgid; here fire and repose gelled because of the players’ concentration, interaction and vivid communication, superbly sustained. The middle movements’ intimacies and mellifluous turns of phrase – and rustic touches – was ideally shaded and clarified, and the contrapuntal rigour of the finale was equal-voiced and delivered with real bite.

Such intense and revealing music-making might have been hard to follow, but with the versatile Gilbert Kalish (long-associated with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and a dedicated exponent of ‘new’ music), the Emerson musicians – all now seated – gave a probing and impassioned account of the large-scale Piano Quintet. Kalish, not necessarily a ‘great pianist’ but a damn fine musician (if I may make such a distinction), was precise and sensitive, and ever-attentive to his string-colleagues. One can imagine a positioning that better integrated piano and strings, in terms of the musicians’ eye-contact, although the ear (so much more reliable than eyes) pronounced balances as spot-on and musical interaction as five-way rather than four-plus-one, just as Eugene Drucker (leading throughout this concert, when normally the Emerson violinists take it in turns) rarely if ever looked at his colleagues while Dutton and David Finckel formed a double-act of friendly exchanges, the cellist also being a motivator and commentator of unfailing encouragement.

For all these visual side-shows, the performance was deeply absorbing, the first movement unfolded with largesse and, after the repeated exposition, taking wing in the development. A rapt and confidential Andante was linked to a meaty and flowering scherzo – a process of continuity that ‘took’ the cough-less audience – and the finale was notable for ‘elastic’ tempos (that didn’t lose the thread of the whole), Finckel’s wonderfully expressive playing, and a moment of pure pathos before a coruscating coda fuelled by emotion and energy.

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