Members of Emerson Quartet with Ralph Kirshbaum & Elisabeth Leonskaja – 2

Duo in G for Violin and Viola, K423
44 Duos [selection]
Partita in D minor for unaccompanied violin, BWV1004 – Chaconne
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25

Members of the Emerson String Quartet [Philip Setzer & Eugene Drucker (violin) and Lawrence Dutton (viola)]

Ralph Kirshbaum (cello) & Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker & Lawrence Dutton. Photograph: Mitch JenkinsThis was chamber music-making in the truest sense – the Emerson Quartet, lacking cellist David Finckel to a most unfortunate back injury, calling on friends Ralph Kirshbaum and Elisabeth Leonskaja to fulfil a tour of Europe.

The radically altered program – originally string quartets by Haydn, Webern, Prokofiev, Beethoven and Bartók – began with Mozart, music elevated far above a student piece by its composer’s quality, jovial outer movements framing a more concentrated Unfortunately Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton took a rather heavy-handed approach to the faster music, Setzer sweet of tone but a little too loud while Dutton was similarly ponderous in response. The attractive melodies therefore lost some of their lightness, although the softer hue of the Andante was beautifully done.

Setzer, present throughout the concert, played second fiddle to Eugene Drucker for six of Bartók’s 44 Duos. These are brief but pointed miniatures, mostly in dance form. They were winningly performed here, whether dances for soldier or bride. As Setzer said, “I fear for the quality of that marriage!”, an observation borne out by the rather bittersweet melody that Drucker then played.

Setzer returned for something of a curiosity – solo Bach. His steady, unhurried performance manner was extremely complementary to the slower music, with an approach largely free of extraneous ornamentation and including a wonderfully light transition to the major key towards the end.

Unfortunately when the ‘friends’ joined, the performance levels were less satisfactory. There was much to commend Elisabeth Leonskaja’s playing, a lightness of touch, detail of phrasing and very clean octaves in the scurrying theme of the finale. However much of this was given at a level of dynamic that was far too quiet, swamped by the power of the strings in front of her.

The floated lines worked best in the Intermezzo, especially with the strings muted at the start, but the beginning of the slow movement brought the problem back into focus with heavy strings and barely audible piano. Only in the finale did Leonskaja approach a genuine fortissimo, rather late in the day.

Setzer it was that carried the performance, a dominant line ensuring that the strings were together, with Ralph Kirshbaum listening closely to get the balance right, his solos all sensitively played. Yet communication between strings and piano was seldom – a product, perhaps, of inadequate rehearsal time.

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