Friday, May 4, 2012

Hails and farewells from the Emerson String Quartet

The Emerson String Quartet
Last Friday Celebrity Series welcomed the Emerson String Quartet (above) in what felt a bit like a farewell concert - although it was really only a farewell to cellist David Finckel, who will be leaving the ensemble next year (he will be replaced by Paul Watkins).  So it was no surprise the program brimmed with other farewells - it featured Haydn's farewell to the string quartet (Op. 77, No. 2), as well as what unexpectedly turned out to be Beethoven's farewell to everything, the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135, No. 16.  The concert was balanced by one big "hello" - the rolling premiere of Thomas Adès' The Four Quarters, which was commissioned for the Emersons by the Carnegie Hall Corporation.

Needless to say, the performance gave poignant, persistent evidence of why people are already feeling nostalgic toward this quartet's current line-up (which has endured for more than three decades).  The maturity, the insight, the passionate detail, the confident, unspoken sense of ensemble - it was all there, again, just as it always is with the Emersons.  The opening Haydn was particularly delightful - it played as a rich, perhaps slightly rueful emotional statement with a buoyant chuckle rippling just beneath its surface.  Propelled by Eugene Drucker on first violin, the opening Allegro moderato was exquisitely Mozartean (scholars claim it quotes the "catalogue aria" from Don Giovanni), while the following Menuetto proved deliciously playful - and the indispensable Finckel's cello all but bounced through the final Vivace assai.  To be honest, I felt this was the quartet's finest playing of the night (but then this is one of my favorite quartets, too).

Next came the Adès, which perhaps inevitably sounded a bit thin when sandwiched between late Haydn and Beethoven.  I'm generally a big fan of this challenging composer, but I have to admit - I think this may be one of his minor works; it  comes with an overt metaphoric program, but not much of a developing intellectual one.  Still, time will tell, and the audience certainly seemed to warm up to it (but then it gets better as it goes along, too).

As usual for Adès, Four Quarters is built on extremes of tone and dynamic, and depends on a certain alienated formal precision.  It's also a clear meditation, like La Mer and other works, on specific times of day; the first movement, Nightfalls, sets strange booms of sound against a kind of low, dreaming bass; something (perhaps human consciousness) is collapsing here into a sleepy drone.  In contrast, the following Morning Dew (excerpt below) is a spiky wake-up call of pizzicato effects, with plucked strings conjuring dozens of droplets precipitating out of the atmosphere.  This isn't too far from Brian-Eno-level electronica, however, where the concept does most of the heavy lifting; and the churning Days likewise plays like a self-conscious, but rather obvious, chunk of pop.  Adès only really gets down to work in the finale, The Twenty-Fifth Hour, which both hints at some mystical limit beyond the scope of our daily lives, and actually gets somewhere musically, too, thanks to a gracefully building contrapuntal development.

After Adès it was on to Beethoven, and what the master didn't realize at the time would be his last completed piece, Op. 135, No. 16. The work is famous for the inscription on its final movement, “Muss es sein? Es muss sein” (“Must it be? It must be”), which is perhaps not so much a reflection of the great composer's awareness of his impending mortality (he had a number of projects cooking at the time of his death, including a 10th symphony) as some eerily prescient, half-comical accidental portent.  The Emersons seemed to take the piece as mostly another of the composer's meditations on the pleasures and limits of classicism; with Philip Setzer on lead violin,  the Allegretto and Vivace were elegant, but not deep - depth came later, in the third movement, which touched here and there on the spiritual transcendence that illuminates the other late quartets; but this was shaken off again in a vigorous final Allegro.

After tumultous applause, the Emersons returned for a single encore, the first movement of Ives' First Quartet, generally known as the "Salvation Army" quartet.  This proved everything it should be: affectionately parodic but eventually affirming, and tossed off with the Emersons' usual low-key mastery.  It was hard to bid them (and especially cellist Finckel) farewell after that, I admit - but perhaps we're only on the verge of an exciting "hello," and another dazzling career phase, for this stellar ensemble.

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