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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Concert Review: That '70s Show

The Emerson String Quartet plays Britten and Shostakovich.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The new boy: the Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton,
Philip Setzer) welcome cellist Paul Watkins.
Photo courtesy the Emerson String Quartet.
The average classical music lover is wary of anything written in the last century. However, Wednesday night's concert at Alice Tully Hall by the Emerson String Quartet featured three late works by two composers who survived into this unlikely decade: Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. The program explored the connection between the two composers, who were on friendly terms, with Shostakovich even visiting Britten's home base of Aldeburgh while on a rare visit to England.

This was the second of three concerts in the Emersons' current exploration of Shostakovich's last five string quartets. The Shostakovich quartets are personal works that stand at the pinnacle of 20th century music for four players. Sandwiched between the composer's String Quartet No. 13 (1970) and String Quartet No. 14 (1973) was the Third String Quartet (1975) by Benjamin Britten. This was the last utterance of the British composer better known for his choral works and a long string of operas.

Although the Emersons have made a point of standing to play their concerts in recent years, an injury suffered by violinist Lawrence Dutton (he walked with a cane) meant that the players were seated, with Mr. Dutton, Eugene Drucker (violin) and Philip Setzer (viola) on piano benches and new cellist Paul Watkins in the more usual chair. Playing under just six dim lights, the musicians were all business--appropriate, given the dark nature of the first work on the program.

The Thirteenth is a challenging quartet, a single 20-minute movement that meditates on death and fate. Mr. Setzer led the way into this dark journey, laying out the initial note row and playing the upward three-note motif that anchors the piece.  With plucks and col legno taps from all four instruments expanding his tonal palette, Shostakovich combines pointillist detail with broad brush-strokes of sound.

As the quartet progressed, keening laments from the violin yield to that ascending three-note figure. with a wide brush, combining colors into mournful swaths of funereal black. And yet, there is beauty in these grim figurations, and a hint of the composer's old sense of humor peering through in the gallows crescendo that ends the piece. Like a mighty boiler about to explode, the work came to an anguished, screaming finish, with the four players lifting their bows as if turning off a valve.

Britten's final work is more accepting of mortality. This piece, composed in part in Venice, is built in five movements. The first two alternate between serene peace and frantic energy. The third movement (marked simply as Solo) was a launch pad for some glorious playing by Mr. Dutton, who let his instrument soar. The whirling Burlesque capered quickly afterward, yielding to the sound of Venetian church bells (simulated by each of the four instruments and the serene serenade of the final movement.

Shostakovich's dry Russian humor is evident in the first movement of his Fourteenth Quartet. A fast. shuffling game of musical cards between the players, this music is rhythmic, slightly jazzy and even infectious in its good mood. In fact it is an atypical gem of Shostakovich's late period and almost sounds imbued with feelings of relief. It stops playing in the middle of its last phrase, hinting that the round-like melody could go on ad infinitum. The central movement featured slow, elegiac playing, darkening the mood and preparing the listener for the finale, which the players launched into without a break.

This is a strange whirling beast of a finale, quoting the three-note plucked motif from the Thirteenth before giving way to lengthy melodic lines for the cellist. These included a conspicuous quotation from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work that personally offended Josef Stalin and set Shostakovich on the path of living the rest of his life in mortal terror. However, here the aria theme promised serenity and resolution, two qualities that are often absent in the last period of this great composer. That serenity finally came in the form of another quote (possibly Richard Strauss) as the work ended with a glowing series of final chords.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.