The Emerson Quartet Stands Out

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Ricordanza
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Joined: Sun Jun 26, 2005 4:58 am
Location: Southern New Jersey, USA

The Emerson Quartet Stands Out

Post by Ricordanza » Sun Feb 07, 2016 5:01 pm

Pardon me, but I couldn’t resist the pun.

For those in the dark, the Emerson Quartet is known for, among other things, standing (except the cellist) rather than sitting during every performance. Why? "We feel freer while playing and cues are easier to follow," violinist Eugene Drucker says. But they stand out in other ways as well. For nearly four decades, this quartet has set a standard for excellence, with their focused tone, their polish, and their intensity (although occasionally too intense). I have heard and admired their recordings for many years, but on Friday evening, February 5, I finally had a chance to hear this group in concert.

It was also an opportunity to hear some music for the first time, since all three works on the program were new to me.

Like many great melodists, Schubert knew when he had created a great tune. So why limit it to one work? After writing incidental music for the play Rosamunde, he used a theme from that music in one of his piano impromptus and also in the slow movement of the Quartet in A Minor, D. 804. While not quite as memorable as the slow movement, the other three movements certainly contain lots of Schubertian beauty. The piece received a warm and committed performance from the players.

Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10, Op. 118, is a study in contrasts. The most striking part of the piece is the second movement, a hard-driving, even grating march. Other parts of this quartet were more lyrical, or at least mellow, but this being Shostakovich, there’s always an edge, a suggestion of anxiety or irony so that the listener is never completely comfortable.

While the first two pieces were appealing in different ways, the concluding work was clearly the highlight in both music and performance. Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in B flat Major, Op. 87, includes an additional viola, and this subtle change in instrumentation adds a richness to the texture of the piece. The extra musician on Friday evening was an especially eminent addition—Roberto Diaz, formerly principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and currently Director of the Curtis Institute of Music. I can’t pick out a highlight from this work simply because all four movements abound with musical inventiveness, superb use of the small ensemble format, and the energy and extroverted enthusiasm typical of this composer.

As I mentioned earlier, in some of their recordings, the Emerson Quartet seemed to me to generate an intensity that was not always appropriate for the music they were playing. But on Friday evening, I had no such qualms about their approach. The intensity was there when needed, but nuance and balance characterized their unerringly unified interpretation of each piece. If the Emerson Quartet is on the schedule for next season’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society series, I hope to hear them again.

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