Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Emerson Quartet declines to say good-bye

Eugene Drucker, David Finckel, Lawrence Dutton and Philip Setzer - the Emerson String Quartet.

The Emerson String Quartet has a devoted Boston following, but their recent Celebrity Series concert (their 20th, not that anyone's counting) sold out, I think, for a more poignant reason: cellist David Finckel (second from left, above) recently announced he would be departing the group, so this would be the last local appearance of a beloved ensemble that had endured for over thirty years.

But the Emersons are far more devoted to philosophy than sentiment, and share a quietly cooperative ethos (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer often trade off as first violin), so Finckel's farewell was left unmarked in Jordan Hall last weekend (even though his replacement, Paul Watkins, has already been announced).  Of course given the quartet's namesake - whose system of thought is all about transcending the flux of the world through a self-aware practice - I knew any acknowledgement of Finckel's departure would be understated.  Still, I did think it would be there - Finckel's farewell isn't quite like Setzer replacing Drucker as lead - and so I have to say its lack struck a curious note of aloof diffidence.  Which, come to think of it, has every now and then haunted the ensemble's performances, too.

Curiouser still, the program felt slightly themeless, even though it all hailed from the later days of the romantic movement (and the encore hailed from the moment it transmuted itself into modernism).  The opening choice, Dvorak's Quartet No. 9 in D Minor, seemed to slightly misfire - its sprightliness (it features a polka rather than a minuet) isn't really the Emerson's strong suit (you don't turn to them for a chuckle).  But the surprisingly rich Adagio at the work's center came off quite well, and there was likewise much to admire in the Schumann quartet (in A Major, Op. 41) that followed - particularly the surging "sighs" of the second movement.  Like much of Schumann, this quartet begins to drift a bit, but it comes to a rousing, almost manic, close, which the Emersons essayed with fervor.

The second half of the concert was entirely given over to Brahms' sprawling Quartet in A minor (Op. 51, no. 2), which always gleamed with an assured sense of ensemble - even in its thickest textures - but perhaps only intermittently caught fire.  Most of those moments actually came from Lawrence Dutton on viola, but the entire ensemble did shine in the wonderful Andante moderato - thirty years together have made a subtly balanced musical unity almost automatic for these four men - and once more the finale was truly arresting.

The crowd roared for an encore - perhaps even a solo from Finckel? But what we got instead was a curiosity - the gnomic, otherworldly third movement of Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet, a work so brief (thirteen measures) and so self-consciously distilled that it all but defies interpretation at a first hearing.  It's also all but emblematic of the moment that the Viennese school over-thought itself into musical gnosis (which perhaps highlighted again the Emersons' essential introspection).  Of course, if you believe - as they apparently do - that Webern epitomizes "everything romanticism was leading to," then the choice probably resonated.

But I don't.  So I just waved David Finckel good-bye by myself.

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