Emerson Quartet (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins, Lawrence Dutton, viola, Paul Watkins, cello); Works by Britten, Liebermann and Ravel, Playhouse, October 7, 2014. 

The Emerson Quartet is one of America’s long-celebrated musical ensembles, perhaps almost an institution over the past few decades.  As is well known, the members of this quartet managed to stay together for over three decades until cellist David Finckel decided to leave the group to pursue a variety of new projects at the end of the 2012-2013 season.  A change in personnel in a string quartet need not be a devastating event, since quartets actually go through this quite often.  The illustrious Takacs Quartet has seen changes at two key positions, as did the Tokyo Quartet, while there have now been a total of 13 players who have played in the Borodin Quartet since its inception.  But there are some changes that probably do shake an ensemble to its very roots, as the movie “The Late Quartet” has attempted to portray so forcefully. Thus, the retirement of cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who led the Borodin Quartet for an amazing 62 years until his retirement in 2007 definitely was a severe blow; the ensemble seemingly had to come together from scratch, taking them a number of years to recover.  The classic Amadeus Quartet disbanded entirely after the death of violist Peter Schidloff.  Even though the Emerson’s situation might fall into the ‘traumatic’ category, they did have the advantage of knowing Finckel’s situation two years in advance, so that they could prepare for the change.  The new cellist was the younger Englishman, Paul Watkins, an exceptional and wide-ranging artist who they had known and admired from earlier collaborations. So just how far has the adaptation proceeded at this point?

Throughout the summer of 2013, commentators immediately noted Paul Watkins’ lovely tone and warmth, a contrast from the sharper, more angular projection of Finckel.  Many did not venture to say much more, though there were those who at least hinted that the quartet had got mainly up to speed again without a hitch.  This was in principle unlikely; it was also not the case.  When I saw the ensemble last year on their annual visit to Vancouver, the programme was pretty standard and it was clear to me that Emerson’s almost-automatic virtuosity was not in place as before.  The playing was more sober and deliberate but also somewhat bland.  Watkins was lovely but seemed too refined and reticent relative to the others. 

This year, the situation has certainly changed.  The Emerson’s came in with a much more adventurous programme of Britten, Ravel, and a brand new quartet by Lowell Liebermann. And, yes, the increased synergy and communication between the players was obvious.  Watkins had much more alertness and attack, displaying an altogether more ardent and decisive projection that better matched the intensity of his colleagues.  Because the cellist has a significantly richer bottom end than Finckel, it also seemed that the overall sound was even bigger than before; more completely fleshed out from top to bottom.

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 (1945) is a work that is quite new to the Emerson Quartet and it is wonderful to see them moving on unexplored paths.  I have always thought of this work as a wonderful dialogue between an ‘inner voice’ and a stronger ‘outer voice’, ingeniously mixing moments of mystery and fragility with those of strength and wit.  However, this performance was so uniformly objective, serious and execution oriented that I did not really find many of these characteristics here. If anything, this reading was all about Britten’s ‘outer voice’.  The very opening, which so quietly creeps in with innocence and wonder, was delivered fully in the light of day at an almost mezzo-forte volume. In fact, the dynamics rarely retreated below this level. But, even so, a real intensity was present.  There was an immense weight in the many sforzando attacks, a seeming frisson that we remember from their previous Bartok and Shostakovich performances, and always a clear awareness of symmetry in the musical structure.  Even from the first movement’s opening cello passages, we saw a new flamboyance in Watkins’ playing.  

While this interpretation is doubtlessly in its formative stages, it showed how far the new ensemble has come in terms of sound production and synergy. Only the balances were out of line sometimes, making the full weight blend somewhat grainy and inelegant rather than burnished and smooth.  I still think the reading is far too robust and unrelenting as it stands but, even if not idiomatic, it was instructive to hear things this way.  The work did feel more terse, abstract and modern, but also much less individual and ingenious.   

Lowell Liebermann’s Fifth Quartet – completed in 2014 and dedicated to the Emerson Quartet -- is an interesting study of symmetry where the elegiac figures of the work’s opening movement find their mirror image in the closing rondo.  A tight, yet in fact rhythmically-asymmetric (as Eugene Drucker pointed out) Scherzo fits in between.  This is the work’s Canadian premiere and only the fourth time the ensemble has played the piece.  I have enjoyed some of this composer’s output in the past and I can see why this work’s neo-romantic sense of regret and melancholy could have a resonance with many.  The ensemble naturally did concentrate more on interpretation and varied dynamics here but, frankly, I am at two minds about the work.  The elegiac lines which open the work were intriguing since they had some of the same fugal feeling as Beethoven, Op.131, although broken by stabbing punctuations.  (Perhaps this composition really is the Emerson’s secret testament, since the Beethoven is of course the dominant reference of “The Late Quartet”.)  But I did not find this construction particularly distinctive; more of a generic neo-romanticism than the real thing.  Its mirror image in the closing rondo started interestingly but its eventual strengthening and resolution seemed to verge on a sort of film music sentimentality. I liked the tighter, middle movement best. 

The Ravel Quartet was back to sound exploration and what a feast of hues we got here, especially in the third movement.  I admit that I am partial to a degree of Gallic refinement and transparency in this work, so that the texture was again probably too rich and heavy for one to live with.   The first movement picked a fine tempo, but I did not find the expression of its lyrical line very natural.  There was a feeling of suaveness in all the little portamentos, somehow too sweet and calculated.  The second movement was bold and precise, but the heaviness again hid many of the little pizzicato interplays that make this movement so novel and delightful.  The third movement was all rich and highly projected, but what a strong, integrated and sensual range of textures we heard, each voice projected so beautifully.  And the finale was a keen rush to the fences, wonderfully alert and commanding. 

I think that we have seen very strong progress by the Emerson Quartet in a relatively short time.  The technical assurance, coordination and intensity are almost completely back, and their tonal output is even richer and fuller.  Their next step is the difficult one: to find out what to do with this massive new sound and how to scale it effectively to the composers that they are interpreting. The process of sound testing of course must end at some point -- and then the real journey begins. I eagerly look forward to seeing what new interpretations emerge, given the Emerson Quartet’s newly-refurbished resources. 

I end on a slightly sentimental note.  This concert was very kindly sponsored by the Friends of Susan Kessler.  Susan has attended virtually every concert of Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music since its inception 67 years ago, and is just celebrating her 100th birthday.  She is the widow of Jack Kessler, concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony in the 1960’s, and previously associate concertmaster of the Philharmonia Orchestra, alongside Manoug Parikian.  He was my violin teacher.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014


New York Times, published April 8, 2014