David Finckel and Wu Han. Photo 2013 Lisa Mazzucco.

An Interview with Wu Han and David Finckel: Life after the Emerson Quartet and an Upcoming Concert at South Mountain Concerts

Along with the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet, the departure of David Finckel from the Emerson Quartet has been one of the most discussed events in the world of chamber music over the past eighteen months or so. As people who have heard their concerts know, both David Finckel and the Emerson Quartet, now with the British cellist, Paul Watkins, in place, are as rich as ever in their contributions to our well-being as humans. Wu Han and David Finckel spoke with me just today about their new post-Emerson life, which allows David to travel and play more regularly with Wu Han as a duo and as a trio with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, who will join them at the venerable South Mountain Concerts on Sunday, September 29, 2013. They will play Beethoven Op. 1, No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, and Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky.”

I hope you enjoy our conversation about their past, present, and future as much as I did.

Three Last Quartets: the Emerson at Tanglewood: Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert

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.

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

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.

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