Emerson String Quartet – Brahms Plus (2)

String Quartet in A minor, D804 (Rosamunde)
String Quartet in A minor, Op.51/2
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

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

Paul Meyer (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 2 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Emerson String QuartetThe Emerson Quartet’s reputation for well-nigh-prefect technique and emotional reticence was here in evidence. In the Schubert, the first subject had a slight ritardando at the end of its first half the first violinist launched the second subject at a slower tempo than his colleagues would adopt. Nowhere did the dynamic move beyond mezzo-forte. From this nonetheless promising beginning nothing developed. Everything was smooth and innocuous. Much the same could be said of slow movement. Expressive licence was never allowed to surface and the scherzo and finale were completely devoid of life and any form of rhythmic attack.

The second of Brahms’s Opus 51 string quartets seems to be the most-performed of his quartets at present. Here the Emerson was so urbane as to be almost lifeless. Passion, buoyancy and imagination were completely absent. Time and again beauty of sound seemed to the main preoccupation and in the finale the musicians appeared to be simply counting time. To makes things worse, as in the Schubert, the dynamic range was curiously restricted.

Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet elicited a marvellous response from George Bernard Shaw when he likened it to being “buried alive” a sentiment that I share. Things did not start well, when Paul Meyer’s 1960s’ suit and hairstyle jarred with the black-ties of his Emerson colleagues. In the fist movement, there was a fair amount of swooping and swooning from all parties, but no true emotional response and the clarinettist was so smoothly integrated into the texture as to be almost inaudible. The slow movement is by some distance the work’s highpoint and until the final page the performer’s failed to convey its elegiac heart. The remaining two movements simply meandered along.

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