Emerson String Quartet with guest clarinetist David Shifrin, Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Tuesday July 6 at 8 pm

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The Emerson String Quartet. Photo Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.
The Emerson String Quartet. Photo Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Emerson String Quartet with guest clarinetist David Shifrin
Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Tuesday July 6 at 8:00 pm

All Mozart Program:

Five fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” book II by Bach transcribed for string quartet (BWV 874, 876, 871, 878, and 877)

String Quartet no. 19 in C major, K. 465, “The Dissonant”

Quintet in A for clarinet and string quartet, K. 581

Encore: fragment of a Quintet in B-flat for clarinet and string quartet

For many reasons, Mozart is one of the most difficult composers for today’s performers to encounter. Historically, he occupies an intermediate zone between Early Music and mainstream performance practices, and today’s musicians have a wide range of performing styles from which to choose, from those passed on by traditional conservatory teachers and established mainstream performers, to the spectrum of historically informed practices exemplified by Dutch, German, English, and even American ‘schools,’ and extending to hybrids of the two. This counts enormously in Mozart, whose sensitive, vocal-based melodies and elegantly complex textures reveal every strength and weakness of a chosen performing style with spectacular clarity. This is not to say that anyone can claim a ‘correct’ choice; writers have long ago established that the notion of ‘authenticity’ is a chimera. The real issue is how effectively and convincingly a performing style can convey the heart and soul of the music to a modern audience.

A second reason that Mozart is the ultimate performer’s challenge is the complexity of his emotional world. There are layers of feeling in his music that must be revealed in a balanced way, a dramatic tension between the mood of the moment and that of the larger formal contexts. This is most obvious in the operas where changes of fortune (as in the second act of “The Marriage of Figaro”) must be rendered with spontaneity, yet without losing the larger flow of events toward their ultimate conclusions. Bruno Walter said that he would not perform Mozart’s later G minor Symphony until he was over 40, feeling that he needed life experience in order to understand the work. Especially in Mozart’s music from the period represented by this program (1785-1790), grasp of emotional complexity and philosophical maturity are required.  Each performance of Mozart, therefore, represents a challenge to the performers to reveal who they are as musicians and as people. As the unofficial American quartet laureate, the Emersons did just that last night at Ozawa Hall.

When I started attending Tanglewood regularly, in the mid-60’s, I used to favor the earlier weeks of the season, when the Boston Symphony presented concerts of Bach and Mozart as a way to warm up to the rest of the season with “lighter” works. I recall exciting, even revelatory performances in the Shed under Erich Leinsdorf of Bach’s St. John Passion, Magnificat, and great cantatas, as well as a hair-raising performance Mozart’s Concerto 21 with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano. In those days, historically informed performance was in an embryonic stage and for most of us, mainstream performances such as these were the way we got to know this incredible music. I don’t know if I would feel the same way about these renditions today, but they were filled with a passionate love of the music conveyed with great skill, and they left an indelible impression. I suspect that if I had heard this Emerson concert back then, I would have felt the same way about it. But in the almost half-century since, the culture has changed, and for better or worse, the performing style we call “mainstream” has come to acquire new meanings (much in the way that introducing new words into the language alters the meanings of the old ones).

As a pre-season offering, an all-Mozart chamber concert after one of the hottest days of the year must have felt like an elegant, sherbet-like experience for the audience that filled Ozawa Hall. (Folks on the crowded lawn suffered an invasion of mosquitoes, but most hung in for the duration.) Some may therefore have missed the canny program-building: by starting with five Bach fugues (performed in a different order than that listed on the program), the Emersons were setting up their rendition of the “Dissonant” Quartet by alerting us to the contrapuntal complexity of Mozart’s mature quartet textures. This is the last of the set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, a series of works conceived when the composer met the elder master in 1781 and developed between 1782 and 1785. It assimilates the lessons Mozart learned from Haydn’s op. 33 quartets on the one hand, and from his intense exposure during these years to the music of Bach on the other. It is one of the most densely argued, and in many ways is a strange and challenging work for the audience, filled with tangled webs of counterpoint, sudden swerves of mood, unexpected elongations of thematic statements into secondary developments that carry us far from the apparent clarity and simplicity of their beginnings, and of course, pushing-the-envelope use of piled-up dissonances. Written at the beginning of that most astonishingly productive year, 1785, it could be considered the composer’s graduation piece.  A music-loving friend said to me at intermission “That was not my Mozart.”

For “his” Mozart, my friend had to wait until after intermission for the performance of the Clarinet Quintet. Written four years later, it not only reflects Mozart’s late manner with its more lyrically flowing, formally relaxed, deceptively simpler style, it also exhibits traits of the divertimento whose roots go back to the entertainment music that a younger Mozart produced regularly for the evening social events hosted by his employer the Archbishop of Salzburg. The symptoms of entertainment music were the serenade-like lyrical conversations between the first violin and the clarinet or among the strings, the Larghetto operatic aria-without-words for the clarinet (a stand-in for the Countess?), the minuet with two trios, the second of which sounds (or should sound) like an Alpine yodeling tune, and the captivating variations in the finale based on one of those carefree, simple Mozartian melodies that reveals the child prodigy who apparently never fully grew up, but which modestly conceals the greatest tact and skill in its setting.

The Emersons played this program with relaxed mastery, meticulous attention to every detail, a sense of unanimity of ensemble and intonation that only can be achieved by playing together for decades, and an obvious adoration of the music. Although the individual personalities of the players were apparent, the character of the whole ensemble and their approach to Mozart was never breached. So what was there to complain about? For me, the problem posed itself in historical terms: the basic approach to playing was that of the hundred years from the late nineteenth through late twentieth centuries. By using almost continuous (although frequently varied) vibrato, intonation based on the equal-tempered scale, bowings compatible with modern full-length bows, and the metal strings that project the sound effortlessly through a hall that holds about 1000 people, the Emersons project a sense that Mozart’s music is an old style that is being brought up to date. This was particularly clear in the fugues, which were actually Bach being modernized by Mozart, and then further modernized by the Emersons. The result in both the fugues and the quartet had the quality of a work by a composer such as Grieg, Elgar, or even Stravinsky absorbing Bach’s influence, or trying to evoke a Bach-like sense of counterpoint, with its bustle and sudden emergence of themes from the lower voices. Of course they played Mozart’s notes perfectly, but it was Mozart equipped with clothing from the wrong period, as if he were a character re-conceived by a creative opera director. Another problem was precisely the well-oiled character of the performance. Much in Mozart should sound surprising, humorous, unexpected, contentious, disruptive, and above all spontaneous. The Emersons of course understand that, and made all the right gestures, but somehow it all seemed so well-planned, so perfectly executed, so seriously presented (since we understand from the start that we are hearing Masterpieces) that some of the life of the music was missing.

With the addition of clarinetist David Shifrin, there was a change. The influence of a new voice (personality, instrument) seemed to wake everyone up (as if Nietzsche’s noon-day bell had suddenly sounded in their ears) and the party suddenly gained new life. Shifrin obviously adores this work (what clarinetist does not? it defines the soul of the instrument) and played it with joy verging on ecstasy. There were moments when the mainstream style of the performers proved completely adequate to the contents of the music, revealing that the relationship between the performers and the present moment trumps all else. Shifrin’s sound on his modern A clarinet (he did not play the original part which was designed for a basset clarinet with downwardly extended range, but the standard modern rearrangement) was light, flexible, and not self-consciously over-polished. Some modern players achieve a preternaturally smooth sound by equalizing the tone across all the quirky idiosyncratic parts of the the instrument’s range, but Shifrin allowed these natural tonal differences to be heard, giving each note a distinctive color and voice. This contributed to the spontaneous and characterful quality that was achieved. Even in his stage presence, Shifrin displayed a delight in music-making that proved infectious, particularly for cellist David Finckel.

The program concluded with an actual little dessert treat: a fragment of an earlier work for the same instruments that Mozart never completed. This was the exposition and a few bars of development of a quintet in B-flat. The style was mature Mozart, the gesture a lyrical triple meter much like the Piano Trio in E major, first movement, and the quality and performance were both first-rate. Although incomplete, it was clearly on the path to becoming another Mozart masterpiece. Knowing beforehand that it was a fragment, one listened as if in a car that was about to go over a cliff.

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