The Emerson Quartet at Tanglewood: Mozart, Adès, and Late Beethoven, the B Flat Op. 130 with the Große Fuge

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

Emerson String Quartet
Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood
Thursday, July 5, 8 pm

Mozart – Quartet No. 21 in D, K.575
Adès –  Four Quarters, for string quartet
Beethoven – Quartet No. 13 in B-flat, Op. 130, with original Große Fuge Finale, Op. 133

The Emerson Quartet have been among Tanglewood’s most admired attractions for many years now. A cloud of nostalgia is beginning to gather over them right now, since it has been announced that cellist David Finckel will be leaving the group at the end of 2012-13. He will be replaced by Paul Watkins, so it is clear that the quartet has no intention of disbanding. However, it will be the end of what is not quite the founding members. Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker actually founded the quartet in the American bicentennial year. Violist Lawrence Dutton joined them in 1977, and David Finckel in 1979. In their announcement of the change, it was mentioned that they saw it as a “chance to reassess our goals and articulate a new vision for the future…” Things will be different, when Mr. Watkins arrives. Emerson Quartet fans will miss Mr. Finckel’s impeccable technique and musicianship, as well as the comic relief he often provides for the Emerson’s customary pokerfaced seriousness, but there will be many other opportunities to hear him. He has been playing with his wife, the pianist Wu Han (a Marlboro match, I believe) for many years, in an intense, almost quirky style, quite different from the Emerson’s. In a way, I am not surprised to see him go his own way.

The Emerson Quartet stands out for its impeccable technique and luxuriant golden sound. Among the many great quartets we can enjoy today, they are the jewelled Cellini ornament…set an a solid marble base, of course. They are anything if not serious about music as thought and architectural form.

On this evening this seriousness somewhat belabored the Mozart Quartet in D, K. 575. It is well known that Mozart wanted to pay homage — and also compete with — Haydn, the great master of the form, in these late works, and the Emerson seemed especially conscious of the Haydnesque qualities of the work. Mozart worked hard to make his four players independent and equal and to compose his themes in short motifs, even to the point of curtailing some of his bass figurations to make them seem to function like an independent voice. The Emerson’s performance was so very clear that one could follow all this closely, and one came away with the feeling that Mozart was trying a bit too hard to beat Haydn at his own game and failed. I find that the most successful performances of Mozart’s mature Quartets are well-blended and approach them in the same style as divertimenti and the like, relying more on elegance and charm in phrasing than on the logic of voice-leading. Mozart’s continual conversation among the instruments, on the other hand, is fascinating, and that came through especially well. The Emerson’s sound was of course gorgeous.

Thomas Adès’ Four Quarters was commissioned by the Emerson and premiered last year at Carnegie Hall, its co-commissioner. These are four rather short character pieces, full of atmosphere, mood, and color, but coherent in structure and sequence. They suggest the movements of a proper string quartet, with the second movement as the scherzo and the third as the slow movement. The titles of the movements: “Nightfalls,” Serenade: Morning Dew,” “Days,” and “The Twenty-Fifth Hour” bear little obvious relation to the music they are associated with, although “Days” suggested to me a despairing succession of days, as one might experience them, if one were trapped in some boring, distasteful job, and living unhappily alone or in a bad marriage. The mood is mostly somber, even menacing, or occasionally terrifying. In them harmony functions as color, and together they are the most prominent expressive elements of the work. Form is present, but in the background, most obviously as an ABA pattern. Four Quarters was a haunting work I’d like to hear again. The Emerson dispatched it with total command of its vast palette and the tight ensemble it required.

The concert closed with one of Beethoven’s final quartets, the B Flat, Op. 130 with its proper final movement, the Große Fuge, Op. 133. The Emerson’s impressive discipline, virtuosity, and characteristic sound gave the performance an ease and polish, and even somewhat tamed the strange work into something resembling an occasionally demented kind of Hausmusik in the first four movements, followed by a grave and very beautiful slow movement in the spirit of the Ninth Symphony, and the massive finale, played with such precision and command that it seemed almost easy — as well as less daunting for the listener, since its structure came across with particular clarity, and there was barely a harsh sound to be heard. They saw the final two movements as dominated by a solo violin recitative and concertante part, played with exceptional poise and beauty of tone by Eugene Drucker, the lead violin for this work. His restraint was impressive above all: without repressing the impressive qualities of his solo playing, he never parted entirely from the group to assume the full independence of a soloist. This kind of interaction was a tour de force. Did their reading in some ways simplify and limit this unique creation of Beethoven’s final years? Yes, I’d say…but it was an intelligent, respectful approach, honoring the composer’s genius with playing of the highest accomplishment, taste, and selflessness.

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