Three Last Quartets: the Emerson at Tanglewood
Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, July 12, 2011
Emerson String Quartet
Haydn, Andante and Minuetto in D minor, op. 103
Bartók, Quartet no. 6
Schubert, Quartet no. 15 in G major, op. 161 (D. 887)
The Emerson Quartet has become our honored eminence grise of chamber ensembles—they have recorded much of the literature (excluding critical 20th-century repertory by Schoenberg and Carter but including the complete Shostakovich) in performances that are regarded as definitive. Their concerts have taken on the aura that I recall experiencing a generation or two ago with the Budapest and then the Guarneri Quartets. The high-mindedness of the string quartet genre performed by the ensemble known to be the best there is induces in audiences a state of meditative reverence that is sustained by beautifully polished, superbly controlled performances. There is even a moral component involved: rather than relegate one performer to a subordinate role (that of second violinists Alexander Schneider or John Dalley) the Emersons are egalitarian: Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker share first and second violin duties. Their textural preferences are for rich, even-voiced sound that easily allows the viola and cello to speak through, and the balances are almost perfectly calibrated to display the endless resourcefulness of the composers.
The string quartet as a medium encourages a worshipful attitude. It strikes a perfect balance between the introspective indulgences or virtuosic (and artistically suspect) bravado of the soloist, and the juggernaut-like power of the orchestra. A quartet can be awesome and overwhelming, or vulnerably personal, sometimes both within the same phrase. The individual player retains identity but often subsumes it to the needs of the whole ensemble. Quartet players have to develop a whole additional set of skills to make this dynamic work properly—you can’t throw four great players together and expect them to be even a passably good quartet. They have to know each other so well that they can play “inside each other’s heads.” The moral implications are clear: their playing represents an ideal social unit which behaves during performance the way we all should behave in the conduct of our daily lives. (Of course, they may not actually behave that way in their daily lives, but that is none of our business.)
Quartets are not the easiest music to understand. Composers since Haydn (the Founding Father) treat it as their private arena and use it to satisfy their own interests, curiosities, stylistic and technical adventures, and most personal thoughts. The audience is there to eaves-drop, to stand respectfully just at the door-step, being careful not to disturb the composer’s self-communion. Beethoven’s late quartets were so arcane that players were initially chary about programming them at all. When they did, in England in the 1840’s, small scores were distributed at the door so that listeners would have help in unraveling the mysteries of such avant-garde works. Hence the invention of the study, or miniature, score.
We tend to evaluate composers in terms of their string quartets: how many did they write? how did they distribute quartets throughout their careers? were they true quartet composers or dilettantes, specializing in other genres, like Verdi, who produced only one quartet as a kind of “sport.” The composers who return repeatedly to quartet-writing earn a special kind of respect, and the list of names is short: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Elliott Carter. Even Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, who wrote three apiece, don’t quite make it into the quartet-writing pantheon. Four seems to be the minimum that gets you there, hence Schoenberg (4) makes it but Berg (2) does not. Brahms and Nielsen were serious and accomplished quartet composers, but at three apiece (not counting numbers of unpublished or destroyed works) their quartets do not constitute a record of a career, as do the four of Schoenberg, which span all his major stylistic developments and (in the case of the Second Quartet) show him in the very act of evolving stylistically. Another three-quartet man, Benjamin Britten, is a border-line case, since his quartets are diverse in style and date of origin, and high in quality. I think the British probably would like to push him over the line.
Which brings us to the theme of the Emerson’s concert: last quartets. The three composers represented are all unquestioning members of the quartet pantheon. Haydn’s 83 works span his entire 47-year creative career (1755-1802), as do Schubert’s 15 and Bartók’s 6. Schubert’s first eleven quartets are much less distinguished than the final four, just as his earlier symphonies are not on the qualitative plane of his last two. But for a man who lived to be 31, the final four alone would gain him easy entry. Bartók’s six are distributed across most of his career, from 1908 to 1939, and like Schoenberg’s they demonstrate the evolution of his mature and late styles with great seriousness, intensity, and diversity. Years ago I heard a program at Tanglewood in which the Emersons played all of them in chronological order. Years before that, also at Tanglewood, I heard the Takács Quartet play three of them one night, and the Bartók Quartet play the other three two nights later. Hearing six at one sitting was exhausting but it made a good program; no two are alike, but they display the steady growth and development of arguably the greatest compositional mind of the 20thcentury. (It is fascinating that Sibelius, widely reviled for his conservatism during most of that century, shared this valuation of Bartók.)
The first question one might ask is: did these composers know they were writing their last quartets? In two cases, the answer is a pretty definite “yes,” and in Bartók’s case, “probably” is a better response. Haydn, composing in the wake of the demanding projects of The Creation (1799) and The Seasons (1801) declared himself written-out and exhausted. At the age of sixty-nine, his creative engine simply quit on him, and you can hear it in this lovely but fragmentary work, which he wrote attempting to fulfil a commission from Prince Lobkowitz. The simple Andante movement lacks a coda, and ends with uncharacteristic abruptness. The Menuetto is more rounded, and shows touches of cleverness and surprise in its chromatic motives, but the word that critics use for such subtle, low-energy composing is “autumnal.” The snap, crackle, and pop of Haydn’s wit and inventiveness has turned soft, if not a bit soggy.
Schubert’s work was written in his final year, when the hitherto slow deterioration of his health began to accelerate. His response was the opposite of Haydn’s: he composed like a man possessed. The output of great, lengthy chamber, solo, and vocal music in his final year is not to be believed, and the G major Quartet is second to none in the company of the E-flat Trio, C major Quintet, last three piano sonatas, and the songs of Schwanengesang and Winterreise. Many of the late instrumental works have perpetual-motion finales that are fiendishly difficult to play and can also be a bit painful to listen to—one has to play them as they were written, in a demonic state.
Bartók’s final quartet does sound like a retrospective and a farewell. It is gentler and mellower than its predecessors, but is a fully-formed, robustly expressive work which continues to draw energy from Hungarian folklore and display formal ingenuity. The form makes use of a reflective melody first heard on solo viola acting as the frame for a series of movements that seem to be pictures from the composer’s past; in view of the moment it was composed, it is hard to imagine the composer was doing anything other than bidding his beloved homeland, and his dying mother, an affectionate and regretful farewell. With the Nazis overrunning eastern Europe, forcing the reluctant composer to flee to alien shores, he must have realized that if he ever returned, it would be to a very different place. In the event, he did not live to do so.
The three different compositional responses to “last quartet” from three different periods made for a fine program, one that was demanding on the players, but mostly friendly to the listener. Interestingly, the biggest challenge did not come from the twentieth-century composer, whose work offered no serious hurdles, but from Schubert, whose “heavenly lengths” (in the coinage of Schumann) required from the audience considerable concentration and fortitude. The violinists split the first/second duties of the program, with Philip Setzer leading in the Haydn and Bartók, Eugene Drucker in the Schubert. The switch in leader was noticeable; the sound of the ensemble changed radically. Under Setzer, the Emersons had a warm, relaxed, rich and very evenly-voiced sound. My recording of the Bartók from 1988 has the same configuration for this work and I am guessing that the Tanglewood concert I recall (probably from fifteen years ago) did as well. In his notes to the 1988 recording, Drucker wrote of the central movements, “Burletta” and “Marcia,” “their humor is not lighthearted but sardonic and grotesque,” and that is the way they sounded in 1988. Twenty-three years later, they sounded nostalgic and affectionate, remembered experiences one would be only too glad to repeat were it possible to turn back the clock. The unanimity of spirit and affection made it easy to believe that these four musicians love playing together, and perhaps even still like each other after all these years. (The documentary about the Guarneri Quartet, “High Fidelity,” filmed after that group was playing together for a similar length of time; makes for a fascinating psychological study in interpersonal dysfunction.)
When Drucker took over the lead in the Schubert, the alteration in sound and approach arguably served the needs of the piece. Where Setzer is expansive and mellow, Drucker is wired and edgy, and this is often a wired and edgy work. At 51:30 in length, it is also exhausting to listen to, and must be exhausting to play, especially the frenetic dance of the seemingly endless last movement. The first movement, too, is very demanding. It is one of those unique, miraculous pieces that only Schubert could create: he is really worlds away from Beethoven at this point, and almost out of this world altogether. The late Stuart Feder, who doubled as musicologist and psychoanalyst, wrote of this movement that it managed to give the impression that all the musical materials were being heard in retrospect, as memories, even the first time. The opening is an introduction which presents isolated chords vacillating between major and minor along with some jagged melodic bits. It is followed by the first theme presented behind a scrim of tremolos, only gradually establishing a sense of pulsation, as if trying to emerge from another world, inner or supernatural. This is not a birth; the theme never fully emerges, but is disrupted by more fragmentation and harmonic vacillation which eventually produces a new, syncopated rhythm. Following a pause, this rhythm takes over as second subject, one of those obsessively repeating exotic dances (Eastern European? Spanish? a heart-beat defying death or undergoing transformation?). This new theme also seems to start in the middle, as if its beginning had already taken place out of ear-shot, or in a previous existence. And even though it moves into crisis areas that would seem to demand its replacement by a new idea, it persists in returning, like the cat who came back. The total span of this idea, in the exposition, is 114 measures, which gets repeated and, later, recapitulated. Other than that, there are tremolo mutterings and more fragments of the first theme behind the scrim of memory, along with ethereal pure triads that morph directly from major to minor and back, all held together by a finely spun tonal architecture that seems as if it might come apart at any moment. A reasonably brisk performance lasts over twenty-three minutes, the length of many a Bruckner symphonic movement. Now here is the really stunning clincher: Schubert wrote the whole quartet, all four movements, in one week! In other words, it must have poured out of him whole. It would take me more than a week just to copy the monster.
Giving shape to such a sprawling, enigmatic work is the performers’ biggest challenge. The immense skills and powerful expressive commitment of the Emersons guaranteed that the work moved in a cohesive way, but I missed the sense of the larger build-ups, the abrupt breakings-off, the resumption of ideas seemingly out of thin air. Each detail was lovingly set forth, but the grand formal drama, the unique climax, the wild swing from despair to ecstasy and back, seemed muted, smoothed over. In the last movement, a macabre tarantella that never ends, the energy seemed manufactured by the players’ sheer force of will. What I missed was the sense that Schubert kept at it by a flow of inspiration that he was powerless to resist, like the tune that keeps going in your head at 4 am when you are trying to turn off your internal ear and get some sleep; only in Schubert’s case, the sleep he might have been longing for was to be permanent.
Reading the composer’s biography into her/his music is a hazardous game that critics and audiences love to play; it makes for fun conversations, and it helps us concretize the powerful emotional forces to which we have been exposed. Carl Dahlhaus, in his book on Beethoven, proposes that the composer creates a fictional persona who then experiences the feelings of the music; the argument in favor is that often composers are working on two or more pieces at once, each inhabiting quite distinct emotional worlds; take, for example, Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. On the other hand, there is the case of Mahler, who could masterfully design a musical structure that enclosed an entire cosmos of experience, but one which originated from his own emotional autobiography. That Schubert could freely design the persona of his music is clear enough from his songs, which meet the emotional and structural demands of his texts superbly. But his late music seems to to be confessional, to have more in common with Mahler than with any other composer. Mahler wrote his last symphony three times; it was only the Tenth that finally did him in. Schubert’s late chamber music strikes me as “last music,” composed under a death sentence pronounced by his own body, but written under the compulsion of an inspiration that simply would not cease. If his song “An die Musik” is indeed autobiographical, then Schubert may have shown us that his “holde Kunst” could be both a blessing and a curse.