South Bank International Chamber Music Series – 6th November

String Quartets –
F minor, Op.20/No.5
E flat, Op.33/No.2 (’The Joke’)
D, Op.64/No.5 (’The Lark’)
G minor, Op.74/No.3 (’The Rider’)
D minor, Op.76/No.2 (’Fifths’)
G, Op.77/No.1

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

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 6 November, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

American string quartets provoke partisan allegiances among critics. You love them or you hate them. They have a freshness and attack, playing as if they were discovering the score for the first time … or their playing is over-projected, inappropriately glossy, everything stage-managed. There are to a certain extent consistencies across different forms of culture – ’new world’ wine is rich but unsubtle, the European counterpart is layered and complex; where American social manners are more open and brash, the British are reserved – so runs the stereotype. Read Henry James – the whole of his work is built on the difference between the straightforward integrity of Americans and the complicated detachment of Europeans. The string quartet is the musical form most suited to intimacy and profundity, and least to display.That, I think, explains why American string quartet ensembles, the Emerson in particular, receive such diverging reviews.

The Emerson are indubitably the leading string quartet from the United States; its members’ technical execution is flawless, their commitment and passion unquestioned. In this ambitious tour through Haydn, sampling every period of his quartet composition, it was amazing to think that such enthusiasm and bounce belongs to a group now twenty-five years old. The Emerson’s playing is indeed smooth, effortless, forwardly projected and glossy.These were not interpretations where the depth or quality of the music was indicated by introspection. Each player was always eager to take up the theme, or demonstrate how an accompanying figuration was essential to the rhythmical picture. These were, as expected, transparent and brightly-lit performances.

Precision and élan paid dividends in certain movements.The ’perpetuum mobile’ finale of Op.64/5, the absolute unanimity in the trio of its scherzo, the spontaneity of the finale in Op.77/1 – these were all points where absolute technical command allowed an exemplary delivery of the musical content. At other times, in the forward-moving slow movements of Op.20/5 and Op.33/2, in the oddly foursquare ’Witches’ Minuet’ of Op.76/2, I felt the lack of the traditional virtues of the European branch of the string quartet tradition – a more openly heart-searching interpretation.

Unusually, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer alternate as first violin. In a concert of works by the same composer, this gives a completely new dimension of interest to the performances. The two players sound completely different. One suspects that in most quartets, Drucker would play first all the time. He has a fuller, richer tone, he is quicker to take liberties of dynamics and rubato; even as second fiddle, his playing grabs the attention. Some of Drucker’s flourishes and melismata were quite audacious in their unashamed virtuosity. Setzer is cooler, his tone as sweet but thinner, his playing witty rather than exhibitionist – Eusebius to Drucker’s Florestan. When Setzer led the quartet – Opp.20/5, 76/2 and 77/1) – his sound was more blended with that of his colleagues, whereas Drucker tended to be more distinct. One can speculate that the choice of leader might have been influenced by the characteristics of the quartets themselves – Setzer being better suited, perhaps, to the intellectual density of Op.77/1 or to the ingenuousness of Op20/5; Drucker more to the soaring lines of Op.64/5.

This was a very long concert. Including two quarter-hour intervals, and rightly without encores, it lasted fully three hours. Halfway through I wondered whether it would not have been better to offer fewer quartets. The rapidity with which movement succeeded movement, the loss of some repeats in the earlier quartets, so neither structure nor thematic material was always fixed in the mind before it was gone, did at times evoke a feeling of edited highlights, a Haydn ’Match of the Day’. Nevertheless, it was clear that though the Emerson could offer only the smallest of selections from Haydn’s oeuvre, they wished the listener to appreciate the evolution of his string quartets over his lifetime. Whereas Haydn is often sacrificed at the start of concerts, here was understanding, most notably in Op.77/1, of how intense, rich and complex these works are. The phrase “brought the concert to a triumphant conclusion” is much over-used, but is appropriate here. Listening to Op77/1’s folk-influenced finale is to appreciate the distillation of a lifetime’s engagement with the relationship between symphonic and popular elements, a true appreciation of the composer’s achievement.

I marvelled at the Emerson’s concentration, which allowed them to play the finale of Op.77/1 with as much freshness and gaiety as the opening of Op.20/5. I only hope enough of the audience was still able to listen with equal attention. The Emerson Quartet takes very seriously its commitment to the intellectual life of the United States. Only such candid, such immediately attractive playing, each musician seemed to be suggesting, could allow so comprehensive an overview of such formidable music.

In the States the Emerson is an absolute pillar of the musical establishment; here, it retains a tinge of controversy. Above all, we must thank the players for demonstrating that the string quartet, the most traditional representation of classicism, and in Haydn, the creator of its most fundamental repertoire, remains something living, a New World still.

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