The Emerson String Quartet
With their playing of one encore, the slow movement from Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor, K. 428, the Emerson String Quartet, with its new configuration of players now including cellist Paul Watkins, concluded an highly successful October 13 program to a packed hall at [email protected]’s Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. This concert inaugurated [email protected]’s Winter Series.
The last work on the program, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80 – as well as each of the preceding selections, the Haydn G Minor Quartet, Op. 20, No. 3 and the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 142 – comprised a memorial concert for the late Boris Wolper, a devoted patron of [email protected] The Mendelssohn F Minor Quartet (1847) projected an almost relentless melancholy, poetic but rife with gloom, the composer’s having learned of the death of his sister Fanny, who died during a rehearsal of Felix’s Op. 60, his First Walpurgis Night. Like the prior selections, the Mendelssohn featured a brilliant if lachrymose Concertante violin part, here realized by Philip Setzer. A feverish agitation marked the opening movement, an emotional instability in the form of a “Winter Wind etude” that might correspond to Beethoven’s affect in the so-called Il Serioso Quartet, Op. 95 in the same key. A stringent sense of discipline held the Emerson players in thrall, and even Mendelssohn’s lack of light-hearted brisk scherzo effects found only sinister syncopations here. There was no letup of this mood in the Trio section, with the viola and cello in low registers while the violins intoned an eerie dance. Many consider the slow movement, Adagio, an extended requiem for Fanny Mendelssohn comprised of a number of sighs in a mournful processional, rendered in what has to be described as “a pure sound” from the Emerson Quartet — a “white” serenity of spirit. Lastly, the final Allegro molto featured a number of “symphonic” declamations in defiant triplets, reminiscent of Beethoven’s fists raised in protest to an implacable Fate.
The program began with Haydn’s 1772 G Minor Quartet, No. 3 from his collection of Six Quartets, Op. 20. Here, as in successive works on the program, violist Lawrence Dutton impressed us with the lovely sounds coming from his deeply resonant instrument, plus his fine rhythmic precision. With Philip Setzer’s playing the Concertante’s singing violin solos, the Haydn moved along with Sturm und Drang figuration, most likely derived from C.P.E. Bach and his penchant for the “emotional” school of expression, marked by flows of eighth notes that sometimes abruptly stop without warning. Projecting a clearly Romantic ethos, the Emerson Quartet imposed a deep mood even to the B-flat Major secondary theme in the opening Allegro con spirito. The periodic silences bestow a kind of choral quality to the unison passages that follow, as though the chanter had invoked a communal response. Irregular meters provide the basis of the Minuetto, whose Trio evolved rather lyrically under the Emerson’s deft hands. Haydn plays off the violin’s tracery of eighth notes against the other instruments, only to have the movement conclude perdendosi (“fading away”), a marking Beethoven would employ in his own Violin Concerto. The Poco adagio movement seemed to “justify” Mr. Watkins’ addition to the Quartet, with his impressive sixteenth-notes passages effectively accompanied by the high strings. The essential hymn of the movement assumed a serenity of spirit in emotional contrast to the restrained sadness of much of the evening’s music. The Allegro molto finale pulsated with impish energy, a sort of musical equivalent to Nietzsche’s Schadenfreude, his feeling of dark joy in others’ discomfort. Somewhat gypsy in sensibility, this music, too, had sudden stops and starts, under which a playful motif that had emerged from the first violin persistently mocked us. Its sly humor left its disturbing hints upon our consciousness the rest of the afternoon.
The tour de force of the afternoon may well have been the Shostakovich Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp Minor (1973), which quite literally bade farewell to old friends. Here, cellist Watkins could bask in his multifarious gifts at his chosen instrument, especially since the work is dedicated to Sergei Shirinsky of the Russian ensemble, the Beethoven String Quartet. Often first violin Eugene Drucker engaged in intimate, even tragic, dialogue with Watkins’ cello. At one point, just prior to the segue, attacca, to the last movement, Setzer broke a violin string, a feat he had not accomplished “in eight years.” Lugubrious and ironical, the canonic writing of the quartet often invoked Bach, Bartok, and Kodaly, and, possibly, another personal friend of the composer, Benjamin Britten. Shostakovich often pairs the string choirs — the solo violin against the viola and the viola in tandem with the cello. This mixing of dynamics and timbres created both intimacy of expression and unnerving tautness in the musical line with sudden cadenzas erupting in the viola part or in the first violin. The mood often became stark, desolate and full of complex polyphony. When the music assumed the character of a romantic dialogue, we felt we had witnessed the Shostakovich equivalent – quoted literally from his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – of Dante’s Francesca da Rimini. No wonder violinist Setzer admitted being close to tears, gazing from his place on the stage – violins and viola standing while Watkins sat solo on a dais – at the space where friend and sponsor Boris Wolper had often listened to his music-making.