Emerson String Quartet – Late Beethoven Quartets

Sunday 18 March 2007
String Quartet in E flat, Op.127
String Quartet in F, Op.135
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

Monday 19 March 2007
String Quartet in A minor, Op.132
String Quartet in B flat, Op.130 [given with the original finale published as Grosse Fuge, Op.133]

Emerson String Quartet
[Eugene Drucker (first violin for Opp.131, 132 & 135) & Philip Setzer (first violin for Opp.127 & 130/133), Lawrence Dutton (viola) & David Finckel (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 19 March, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A pinnacle of any string quartet’s performing calendar is surely found in tackling the late works of Beethoven, and in its thirtieth year the Emerson String Quartet has been touring a double-header of this repertoire, the ensemble seemingly undaunted by the prospect.As is customary with the Emerson, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer shared first violin duties, standing along with Lawrence Dutton as cellist David Finckel sat centre-stage. In previous performances Drucker and Setzer have stood antiphonally, but these concerts found them side by side.

The E flat Quartet established the Emerson’s approach to late Beethoven, with a fulsome sound when all four musicians played together which was often beautiful but occasionally clinical, so that while Beethoven’s utterances were always crystal-clear and precisely in tune, the edge and that perhaps ‘unhinged’ quality required to take the music to the next level was occasionally missing.

Commissioned by and dedicated to the cello-playing Prince Nicholas Galitzin, Opus 127 nonetheless received a fluent performance, with David Finckel expressing fully the cello’s elevated role in the second movement Variations. The grand opening statement was stately rather than full-bodied however, and Philip Setzer was guilty of overindulging in a rather sweet start to the Adagio. As this settled, the Emerson began to hint at the stillness in time so characteristic of late Beethoven.

The scherzo and finale were more successful, the former light on its feet but with a trio that darkened the outlook considerably, while the latter – while arguably too relaxed in its unison opening – gave a heavier set to the second thematic group, followed by a radiant high-register exchange between the top three voices of the quartet before dancing to its conclusion.

From first to last – and a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s final quartet. It seemed the clinical ‘guard’ was dropped for Opus 135, and the first movement’s reliance on its Haydn-esque four note figure was captured with great humour as it passed between the instruments.

A peaceful Lento slow movement drew an unexpected parallel with the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, both sharing the same key of D flat. This was perhaps an indication of the thickness of the Emerson’s textures, but nonetheless the musicians found an acute tenderness at the close. Meanwhile the scherzo drove forward with much play on Beethoven’s syncopations, first violinist Drucker taking the wide melodic leaps in his stride.

Completing the first concert was Beethoven’s masterpiece of form and structure, the seven-movement Opus 131. Here the Emerson’s interpretation, technically once again beyond reproach, had several interpretative issues. A mannered opening Fugue subject placed too much emphasis on the fourth note, distorting the melodic material beyond a reasonable reading of the score. The Theme and Variations of the fourth movement failed to settle also, with the tempo too fast for the timelessness this movement should bring. As a result the obdurate march of the finale didn’t feel sufficiently well won, though the preceding scherzo was made of extraordinary stuff, the fast music passing in the blink of an eye.

The second concert opened with the large-scale Opus 132, a performance of light and shade that on this occasion got right to the heart of the music. This was chiefly due to the central slow movement, the radiant chorale Adagio beautifully controlled at its inception, contrasting ideally with the warmer countermelodies of the livelier Variation theme, where the Emerson heeded Beethoven’s marking and found ‘new strength’. This movement became a keenly felt climax for the whole piece, its other-worldly end aptly supported with a long pause.

After this insight the following march felt a little too soft, its recitative nonetheless strongly projected by Drucker, while the finale asserted itself with impressive intent. Only here was the ensemble’s technical superiority questioned by the music, as tuning and ensemble became a touch awry, but this was balanced by the intensity of expression, and another impeccable solo from Finckel turned minor key to major, the victory won.

Finally, Opus 130, given here with the original finale, Grosse Fuge. The sense of having been on a journey was palpable, though here again a business-like approach threatened to make the music earthbound again, especially in the Fugue.

Setzer’s portamento expression in the opening movement was a distraction, with the others following suit. This was however abruptly quashed by the scherzo – quick, nimble and gone like a breath of wind. The Emerson’s humour had returned – and so, too, had a geniality that leant itself to the ‘Alla danza tedesca’. The portamento issue raised its head twice more – in the Andante taking the form of a rather unpleasant upward sweep from Setzer, though in the ‘Cavatina’ failing to harm a radiant texture, the Emersons securing beautifully refined quartet-playing.

The Grosse Fuge was also refined – not unhinged, as in the best performances by The Lindsays – smoothing the angular contours for a clean-cut but extremely well-executed reading. It was easy to follow the fugal figures as they changed hands around the quartet, though the ‘overture’ preceding the main subject sounded just a touch too calculated, not that which Stravinsky declared “would be contemporary forever”.

To complete the concert, and indeed Beethoven’s late output for string quartet, the Emerson returned for a satisfying encore of Opus 130’s replacement finale, bringing a nice touch of humour to go with the once-again flawless ensemble. It completed a mostly uplifting pair of concerts, the only regret that the transcendental nature of these pieces was frequently glimpsed, rather than openly gazed upon.

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