Mostly Mozart Festival in New York – Emerson String Quartet

String Quartet in D minor, Op.103
String Quartet No.6
String Quartet in G, D887

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

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 15 August, 2011
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Emerson String Quartet. ©Andrew Eccles/DGHaydn’s String Quartet No.68, written in the last decade of his life, comprises the middle two movements of an unfinished work. The Emerson musicians presented a technically precise but ultimately boring account of the work. The ensemble alternates its violinists, but seems much weaker with Philip Setzer as leader. He led the Haydn. Tempos were metronomic with a narrow color palette. Combined with impeccable intonation and minimal shaping of phrases, it felt like the performance was generated by a computer.

Stylistically one could not get much further from Haydn than Bartók. Bartók’s Sixth begins each movement with a Mesto (sad) section. The first three movements then transition to a contrasting emotion: an agitated Pesante, a sarcastic Marcia, an acerbic Burletta, followed by a finale that comprises only the Mesto material. Bartók’s sketches apparently suggest that a lively dance-like section would end the work, but after learning of his mother’s death, the composer closed with melancholic music. The Emerson players managed to make the work’s glorious dissonances sound bland. With Setzer again as leader, the overly precise articulation, absence of structure to the longer lines, and limited variation in timbre made the music robotic. While the musicians’ flawless technique was impressive, the lack of intensity and excitement in this hugely dramatic work was quite shocking. The musicians never played quietly enough, their lowest dynamic being a solid mezzo forte.

Eugene Drucker took over for the Schubert, and raised the performance level by a few notches. A very different violinist from Setzer, he has a thinner, harsher tone. Yet he brought a natural musical sensibility to every note, at last allowing for a satisfying performance. Drucker dared to play very quietly, even when he had the most crucial lines, and it was a shame that his colleagues did not seem to notice. The viola and cello solos in the opening Allegro sounded stilted, and, in the Andante, these instruments frequently overpowered. The scherzo was pleasingly light, aside from David Finckel’s heavy-handed bowing. The finale, taken on the slow side, sounded tired, although Drucker managed some pretty passagework with varied tone. Perhaps some of the passages were not unified in articulation, but the human element and its corresponding emotional spectrum was much appreciated. Setzer was leader for an encore: the third of Dvořák’s Cypresses, sweet, rich-toned, and dull.

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