Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart – Emerson String Quartet & Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Mozart, Beethoven & Fauré

String Quartet in G, K387
String Quartet in F, Op.135
Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.15

Emerson String Quartet [Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola) & Paul Watkins (cello)]

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 3 August, 2015
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Emerson String QuartetPhotograph: www.emersonquartet.comThe delicious bill of fare of this Mostly Mozart recital began with the first of his six String Quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn, the father of the genre. This sunny work is rife with charming themes, inventive harmonies, clever counterpoint, and a virtually perfect balance among the four instruments that was carefully maintained by the Emerson members who fastidiously observed the dynamic alternations in the first two movements. Philip Setzer’s first-violin glowed with the radiant theme of the third-movement Andante cantabile as the musicians traversed Mozart’s contemplative and at times polyphonic music. The fugal beginning of the finale reflects the influence of Bach and also anticipates the last movement of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, and was brilliantly played.

Beethoven’s Opus 135, completed in October 1826, was his last full composition; only the replacement movement for the Grosse Fuge (in the Opus 130 Quartet) was finished before his death, in March 1827. Yet the work’s liveliness and terseness hearken back to Beethoven’s ‘middle’-period works, returning to the simpler forms from which he had departed in most of his other ‘late’ pieces. The genial opening Allegretto, in which the players conversed with almost equal weight, contrasted strongly with the very rapid, syncopated Scherzo with its wildly strident Trio. Equally stark was the transition to the slow movement, a ‘theme and variations’, played exactly as marked: Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo. Here Setzer (again leading) sang out sweetly, nodding ever so slightly to his attentive companions to keep the ensemble together. The finale begins with a Grave introduction based on the three-note phrase labeled by the composer “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?), the answer coming soon afterward in the cheerful theme that inverts the phrase to become “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). The Allegro pace is interrupted by the return of the Grave but soon resumed with vigor, slowing just before the witty coda, which begins with all four instrumentalists playing pizzicato and ends with a ff return to the Allegro theme.

Gabriel Fauré’s First Piano Quartet offered a strikingly different ensemble timbre, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s piano added in lieu of Setzer’s violin in this late-nineteenth-century Romantic work. Lawrence Dutton and Paul Watkins now had much more prominent roles, creating lush textures. Thibaudet was at times a deft accompanist, and at others voiced themes gracefully, particularly in the quirky pizzicato-accompanied opening bars of the Scherzo, and in the latter portion of the Adagio. Dutton’s gorgeous viola melody stood out in the bright finale, in which piano and strings took turns in the spotlight before coming together for a rousing finish.

To round things off, Setzer returned for a sparkling (matching Thibaudet’s shoes) encore: the Scherzo from Dvořák’s Opus 81 Piano Quintet.

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