Thursday, May 2, 2019

Venerable string quartet helps Ensemble Music Society observe 75 years of bringing top international chamber ensembles here

Russia must be indelibly associated with mystery, even the accidental kind.

Lawrence Dutton (from left), Paul Watkins, Philip Setzer, and Eugene Drucker are the Emerson Quartet.
One of the three "Razumovsky" quartets by Beethoven was listed on the main page of Wednesday night's Ensemble Music Society program book, but the program note was about another of the set. The latter was correct, and also indicated by the advance publicity for the Emerson String Quartet's fifth engagement here: The String Quartet in E minor, op. 59, no. 2 was the crowning work on a well-attended program in the Grand Hall at Indiana Landmarks Center. 

Named after one of the composer's loyal patrons, the "Razumovsky" compositions make the tribute explicit in two of the three quartets with the use of a Russian folk song. The E minor quartet places the tribute in the expansive Allegretto third movement. As performed by the Emerson, this lovingly treated interruption fitted seamlessly within the much different main material, a mercurial theme far from the hymnlike implications of the borrowed tune.

Indeed, the Beethoven was properly the concert's peak. The 43-year-old Emerson Quartet alternates the two violinists in the first and second violin chairs, and Philip Setzer — at least this time — seemed to project more personality in the top part than his colleague, Eugene Drucker, had in Haydn's Quartet in D major, op. 71, no. 2.

The concert's third piece, leading up to intermission, was Benjamin Britten's final completed work, Quartet no. 3 in F major, op. 94. Setzer sat first for that piece, too. With its innovative structure, the Britten has a middle movement, "Solo," that focuses on the first violin. So we got quite a showcase of the Emerson in the formation of Setzer first, Drucker second, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel in 2013.

Troubled with poor health (heart problems) near the end of his life, the English composer moved toward a refined, quirky, modernistic, and nostalgic style at that stage. In this quartet, those qualities fit oddly together in a way that draws the listener in while creating some puzzlement as well. The opening movement, "Duets," was fun to follow visually, as its various pairings are not always obvious to the ear. The mood strikes both tentative and assertive notes — aspects that also come to the fore in the finale, "Recitative and Passacaglia: La Serenissima." That largely meditative movement, thanks to the solidity of the passacaglia form, carries a gravitas that music lovers are familiar with in Britten's most famous major works, such as the War Requiem and the opera "Peter Grimes." The Emerson's performance was most convincing, bringing out the sometimes dark wit of "Ostinato," the second movement, hinting at both Stravinsky and Shostakovich. The latter composer's bitter humor got special emphasis during the fourth movement, "Burlesque."

The best thing about the Haydn was a chance to appreciate the Emerson's well-honed coordination in the opening movement, as the smooth phrasing of the Adagio introduction yielded to the neat spiritedness of the Allegro. Also admirable was how much the individuality of the four voices was brought forward in the Adagio cantabile.
The remainder of the work was straightforward, polished and at the highest level of competence, but not extraordinarily winning.

To return to the Beethoven, there was another slow-movement peak with the unanimous way evolving changes of dynamics were coordinated in the Molto Adagio. And the precision of the dotted rhythms characteristic of the Presto finale was at the highest level, setting up the loud intensification of tempo in the final measures. That brought the audience in the 550-seat room to its feet, with shouts of acclaim topping the applause.

The Emerson gentlemen responded with the Scherzo from Giuseppe Verdi's only string quartet. The Trio section features a marvelously lyrical cello melody that might have come straight out of one of the Italian master's operas. At the end, Setzer gestured for Watkins to take a solo bow, which he did, bringing out a large white handkerchief and mopping his brow with florid gestures a la Pavarotti.

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