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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Concert Review: The Emersons' Endgame

At Mostly Mozart: Final quartets from four composers.
String theory: Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton and David Finckel.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Emerson String Quartet. Photo from their website.
The Emerson String Quartet has reigned for three decades as one of the premium string quartets in chamber music. On Monday night at Alice Tully Hall, they cemented that reputation with a concert surveying the final string quartets by Haydn, Bartók and Schubert.

The ensemble also offered a pre-concert recital which deferred to the theme of the Mostly Mozart Festival. As a taster for a coming concert this fall, the Emersons played the third (and last) of Mozart's "Prussian" quartets. Although this piece was written in Mozart's last, difficult years, the writing sparkles with warmth and humanity. Part of this was because Mozart himself enjoyed playing the second violin or even viola, and thus wrote rich accompaniments to the upper melodic line.

Mozart's works in the genre are unparalleled for their warmth and invention. But when it comes to innovation, Haydn is the father of the string quartet. His 68th and last work in the genre is just two incomplete movements. It proved to be a good pairing with Bartók's last quartet, the Sixth. Pairing Haydn and Bartók is in vogue this year, and the Emersons made the most of the former's good humor and the latter's gloomy depths.

Written in the composer's difficult New York years, Bartók's last quartet is less spiky and dissonant than his earlier examples in the genre. But he still calls for unusual effects from the players: hard-plucked pizzicati, col legno (playing with the back of the bow) and guitar-like strumming from the violist. Each movement starts with a Mestó, a sad melody. The finale works out all of these lugubrious themes, ending in a heart-rending cry.

The formal program concluded with Schubert's 15th and last quartet. The Emersons played with an eye towards Schubert's expansive melodic ideas, particularly in the opening movement. (This theme might be familiar to Woody Allen fans: the director used in Crimes and Misdemeanors.)

The march-like adagio featured skilled glissando playing from the violins, and the fleet scherzo was taken at a scintillating pace. The Emersons dug into the descending main theme of the final movement with ith precision and rhythmic drive, showing almost telepathic communication as the navigated the rolling series of arpeggios.

The concert ended on a lovely note: the third of Dvořák's Cypresses, a series of songs that the composer transcribed for string quartet. Messrs. Finckel, Drucker, Dutton and Setzer played this last with longing and sweetness of tone.

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