Emerson Quartet’s polish and insight at its finest at Jordan Hall

April 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm

By Keith Powers

The Emerson Quartet performed music of Haydn, Adès and Beethoven Friday night at Jordan Hall.

“Muss es sein? Es muss sein” (“Must it be? It must be”) Beethoven wrote in the score of the final movement of his Opus 135 string quartet. Beethoven had his own reasons for the rhetorical rumination, but those in attendance at the Emerson String Quartet’s Jordan Hall performance Friday evening could have considered it a comment on cellist David Finckel’s coming departure from the group.

After 34 years, the Emerson’s original lineup will change. Highly regarded cellist (and conductor) Paul Watkins will replace Finckel at the end of next season, and the ensemble will continue. But the polished, intuitive and unified sound on display in this Celebrity Series appearance will take some time to re-invent.

Apart from Beethoven’s final quartet, which closed the program, the evening included quartets by Haydn (F Major, Op. 77, no. 2) and Thomas Adès (Four Quarters). Careful intonation and attention to dynamic possibilities were a given, and the quartet made sure that every emotional angle was investigated as well.

Eugene Drucker occupied first seat for the Haydn. The opening movement was notable for its extended, stuck rests, with an especially long break before the first repeat. The quartet seemed intent on making sure to approach each musical idea introspectively. The two-note motive that characterizes the Menuetto was so playfully pulled apart, the movement seemed like a scherzo. The development in the third movement Andante, which begins with a long unaccompanied duet between the first violin and cello, was particular evidence of the group’s cohesion. Seamlessly, the melody inhabits all the instruments, until the first violin breaks off into an arpeggiated passage, long and challenging, with Drucker expertly counting off his own tempo over the trio. The finale vibrantly restored unity to the musical moment.

Adès’ Four Quarters was written for the Emersons, and premiered last year. Its movements, “Nightfalls,” “Morning Dew,” “Days” and “The Twenty-Fifth Hour,” refer to the passage of time, and perhaps the afterlife as well. Adès creates demanding physical challenges for the players, but for listeners offers an inviting sound-world.

The slow tempo of the first movement never alters. Philip Setzer was in the first chair for this work, and he and Drucker built a staccato melody in threes, over drone-like accompaniment from Finckel and violist Lawrence Dutton. If this is night-time, we’re asleep and dreaming placidly. The second movement erupts into a vigorous plucked display, sometimes snapping into Bartok pizzicato range. The movement is a trio, with a brief, free-form bowed passage interpolated, and the group realized it like a kind of dance.

A monotone ostinato introduces the third movement, at first syncopated but becoming more predictable as the ensemble joins in. The finale (named for its tempo marking, 25/16) was played with a facility that belied its complicated counting. High, staccato figures, very delicate, were delineated by the strings; the low voices strummed accompaniment. As the movement grew, a rich counterpoint, sharply drawn by Finckel’s impeccable tone, emerged. The work, which is bound to find other champions, drifts off into hushed silence.

Intermission was required to transition from the Zen of Adès to Beethoven’s rigorous F Major. Beethoven’s final quartet is not as experimental as some, or as tunefully identifiable as others. But its architecture plays to Emerson’s strengths: a gorgeous edifice with many possibilities for exploration. The first movement—gestural, with short phrases—had the foursome listening and reacting intently, as if they had just met onstage. The Scherzo, with its wild modulations, was a crazy ride. Setzer occupied first chair, and his playing—especially in the slow movement—highlighted the legato qualities, and the finale was spirited and inspired.

The bumptious, fugue-like first movement of Ives’ Salvation Army served as an encore.


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