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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Concert Review: Brothers From the Same Quartet

The Emerson String Quartet celebrates forty years.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The members of the Emerson String Quartet, past and present: Philip Setzer, Paul Watkins
former cellist David Finckel, Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton.
Original photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco, © Sony Classical. Photoshop by the author.
The Emerson String Quartet is among the most storied of American Chamber music ensembles, having thrilled listeners for four decades with their clean, bright-edged sound and a preference for brisk and efficient music making. On Sunday afternoon, the Emersons played the second of two concerts at Alice Tully Hall this weekend. The occasion: to celebrate the beginning of the 2016-17 season of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and to celebrate four decades of music-making with the release of a mammoth 53-disc box chronicling the ensembles' complete recorded catalogue for Deutsche Grammophon.


The players opened with the String Quartet No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who, along with Schubert and Beethoven is considered one of the Giants of the quartet repertory. Written in 1964, the Tenth is just as personal as any other of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets, but it is lighter in tone, with a sense of genuine celebration and relief informing its four movements. However, the trademark elements of Shostakovich's music are all present: dense harmonic invention, a predilection for folk tunes and a tendency to engage in self-reference with repeated use of the theme (D-E flat-C-B Natural) signifying his own name. 

The Emerson players brought a sense of warmth and urgency to these four movements, playing the slow first movement with an expository grace. Here, Shostakovich puts his thematic material before the listener, setting up the excitement that is to follow. The foursome unleashed themselves on the taut rhythms of the Scherzo before playing the taut Passacaglia that followed. Here, the complex bass line was shared by the instruments, allowing the players to exercise the themes over the repeating ground. 

The final movement launched from the third without a pause, with three themes including he aforementioned nine-note passacaglia idea. All these themes were brought together in acomplex and celebratory tapestry, the whole serving as a homage to Shostakovich's friend and protege, the composer Mieczislaw Weinberg, if Shostakovich did indeed hide his innermost thoughts in the notes of his quartets, this work captures the usually dour composer in an unusually celebratory mood.

It was followed by the New York premiere of a much more serious work: the five-movement Shroud by Mark Anthony Turnage. This work featured two slow outer movements, marked Threnody and Lamentation. These dirges flanked a tripartite inner section with two Intermezzo movements flanking a central fast movement. Mr. Turnage is known on these shores chiefly for acid-witted operas like Anna Nicole. In this context, he showed himself a creator of sad, dark and thoughtful chamber music.

In their long career, the Emerson Quartet has had just one major lineup change, when cellist David Finckel departed in replaced by Paul Watkins. In 2013, that torch was passed with a performance of the Schubert String Quintet in C, an enormous, sprawling composition that ranked among that composer’s final, amd finest creations. Here, Mr. Finckel, now co-chair of the Chamber Music Society switched chairs with Mr. Watkins, playing the second cello part. 

It sounded like Mr. Finckel had never left. The five musicians took on the three soaring themes that lead off this quintet before launching into the deep and soulful song for the two cellos, accompanied by the pluck of the other musicians. The slow mov,event had a heartbreaking intensity, taking on the feeling if a farewell to life with its weeping outer sections and stormy center. 

The third and fourth movements had a kind of rude energy, a series of peasant dances that reminded the listener of Schubert’s Viennese soul. If this music was in any way rustic, this was only because each note and chord was played with the utmost precision and care according to the composer's intent. The fourth was a release of whizzing energy, with the smiles and eye contact between the five Emerson men leading to music-making of the highest possible caliber.

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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.