Classical Music Review: Emerson String Quartet at Tanglewood

On CD, the award-winning Emerson String Quartet are terrific, but live, they are even better.

By Susan Miron.

The Emerson String Quartet -- continues to perform after 35 years with impressive excellence

If you haven’t seen the Emerson String Quartet, the first thing you notice is that the violins and viola stand while they play, while the cellist (the extraordinary David Finckel, whom I wrote about two weeks ago when he played in Rockport Chamber Music Festival) sits on a podium, facing out. (They have been doing this since 2002.) The next thing you might notice is the elegance and tonal beauty of the individual and of the quartet. Perhaps their most unusual feature is that, from the founding of the quartet, the two violinists, Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, have taken turns as first violinist. Both are superb players. Lawrence Dutton is so fine a violist, combining a brilliant technique and tonal beauty, that no one who has heard him will ever stoop to tell -—or tolerate -—a viola joke. And David Finckel is one of today’s living cellists. The quartet nowadays plays modern instruments all made by the same maker, Samuel Zygmuntowicz.

This is the quartet’s 35th year; they have won every prize worth winning—-nine Grammy Awards, three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize. As their official bio says, “After thirty-five years of extensive touring, the Emerson Quartet continues to perform with the same benchmark integrity, energy, and commitment that it has demonstrated since it was formed in 1976.” This is patently obvious to anyone who has heard them live. On CD they are terrific, but live, they are even better.

The Emerson’s July 12 concert at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood was built around quartets by Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert. Each piece was the final quartet these composers wrote, which added both poignancy and extra musical interest to this program. The Haydn (1732–1809) was the last of three quartets from a commission for six quartets. Two of the quartets were finished, but Haydn, the most prolific composer of quartets, found he simply ran out of energy during the composition of this, the third. Only the two movements intended as middle movements were completed and eventually published as the String Quartet in D minor, Opus 103. The Emerson’s string playing was elegant. Philip Setzer was the excellent first violinist; one noticed a beautiful vibrato and a penetrating but sweet sound.

The Emerson Quartet has performed and recorded the entire quartets of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, and Bartók. The Bartók quartets influenced virtually all quartet writing after them. The Sixth and last Bartók Quartet opens with an extended viola solo, penetratingly played by Lawrence Dutton, and featured many striking solos for the other instruments as well. Extended sections featured pizzicati between viola and cello. Other sections featured one person playing the solo line accompanied by a trio of strings pizzicato. This was, like everything else this night, played to perfection. Each movement is marked Mesto (sad)- Mesto – Vivace, Mesto Marcia, Mesto- Burletta; Moderata, Mesto, the wrenching fourth movement, which was given its beautiful funereal due. The Sixth String Quartet, written six years before Bartók died, is more Romantic and less wild than the previous five quartets and ends in ineffable sadness.

Schubert wrote his Quartet No. 15 in G, D. 887 knowing he had incurable syphilis. It was written in one week in June of 1826, just two years before he died, at 31. Like so much of his music, it is full of Schubert’s trademark shifts from major to minor within its heartbreaking melodies and harmonies. Eugene Drucker was the memorable first violinist, who, during important solos, turned toward the audience to project the sound, as did Mr. Dutton, both of them to impressive effect. The string writing with its extensive use of tremelandos has been criticized for sounding orchestral rather than soloistic and for the noisy, harmonic nonsequiturs contained in the middle section of the slow movement.

The audience was treated to a beautiful encore of a song transcription by Dvorak, “When her sweet glances on me fall,” Romantic music that quickly turns dramatic, but still sweet. The Emerson String Quartet has recorded and performed a lot of Czech music, and it showed. But these guys make everything sound effortless.

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