The Image of the String Quartet

Emerson String Quartet, Vancouver Playhouse, April 14, 2009

Quatuor Mosaiques, Vancouver Playhouse, April 21, 2009

Emerson String Quartet

Emerson String Quartet

The Friends of Chamber Music completed another distinguished season with performances by two of the world’s most renowned string quartets: the Emerson Quartet (New York) and Quatuor Mosaiques (Vienna).   The former played quartets by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven while the latter combined quartets of Mozart and Schubert.  It is interesting that, while the repertoire is similar, the style of performance is so different.  This raises basic questions about the ‘image’ of the string quartet.

While both groups take immense care in expositing the structure of each work, the Emerson’s have a much bigger sound, emphasize a corporate sonority, and dramatically project the contrasts in each work.  The Quatuor Mosaiques cannot project like the Emerson’s simply because they play on ‘period’ instruments – a reason why this concert was co-sponsored by Early Music Vancouver.  Here we find a more intimate style, one which emphasizes the exact, moment-to-moment interplay between the four instruments, rather than corporate sonority.  While the virtuosity and variety of tone-colour of the Mosaiques is notable, it is their ability to probe the reflective and complex aspects of each work with such insight that one remembers.

This difference in attitude towards quartet playing is one which has a long history.  In the central European tradition, the string quartet is viewed as a medium for conveying the most intimate feelings of the composer, quite different than the objective nature of a symphony or concerto.  Thus, in the classic 1930’s Busch Quartet performances of Beethoven, reviewers agree ‘it is like eavesdropping on a private conversation in which the most profound emotions are expressed’.  This tradition was carried on by many later European ensembles.

In the US in the late 1950’s, it was the Juilliard Quartet that came to symbolize the view that European quartet playing was not as technically secure as it might be, and to that the first step in any performance was the ‘to play all the notes exactly and in tune’.  The Julliard met this demand in a way which was largely admirable, but the younger American ensembles that followed (e.g., Guarneri and Cleveland Quartets) often promoted virtuoso excesses.  By the 1980’s, the ties to earlier European concepts of string quartet playing were challenged.  While European ensembles such as the Talich and Lindsay Quartets did much to carry on the older inspiration, playing a string quartet now had become above all a ‘technical challenge’.  The Emerson Quartet entered into this setting by going one step further.  They demonstrated that one could make the sonority of the string quartet much larger and brilliant than before, emphasizing the objective symphonic strength and beauty of quartet writing, essentially free of traditional chamber music intimacy.

Quatuor Mosaiques

Quatuor Mosaiques

Overall, the concert by the Emerson was quite successful.  The structural strength of both the Haydn and the Beethoven was clearly illuminated.  The Mozart however was probably too deliberate and weighty to capture the quicksilver qualities this composer undoubtedly has.  For the newcomer, this concert would be instructive and exciting -- especially the sheer power and bravura of the Beethoven.  For the seasoned listener, however, one would have noticed all works were given a similar big-boned, structurally-dynamic treatment that exhibited little period style at all.  In the slow movements especially, classical repose was replaced with a generalized romantic expressiveness that seemed simply too modern. 

In the Quatuour Mosaiques performance, the degree of instrumental control and shading was also remarkable.  However, while the Emerson use such control to give unanimous emphasis, Mosaiques go the opposite direction; they use the certainty of their structural pulse to allow the quartet’s members to respond to each other in a way that highlights each player’s individuality.  Each instrument can be heard at all times and so many subtle phrases dart out from the viola and the second violin – instruments that often get hidden.  In the slower passages, unlike the Emersons, the Mosaiques tend to reduce their dynamics, allowing each instrument to participate, often tenderly and expressively, in the still concentration. Correspondingly, the selective situations where Mosaiques really attacked the music at full force and speed were, for me, unbearably exciting.  This was especially true in their revelatory performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet.

I have little doubt that many young listeners will be thrilled by the brilliance and power of the Emerson experience.  However, my feeling is that the seasoned listener will be fully persuaded by the Mosaiques’ interpretations of classical and early romantic quartets.  The Quatuor Mosaiques is indeed a modern quartet and one which is technically outstanding.  What makes it so noteworthy is that it can also capture all the intimate and subtle dimensions that used to be the hallmark of the greatest string quartet playing. 

It is nice to think that within the space of a week in April, all of the past half-century’s debates over string quartet performance could be set in sheer relief in downtown Vancouver!

Selected recordings: Emerson Qt.: Beethoven, Complete Beethoven Quartets, DG 447075-2 (7CDs); Quatuor Mosaiques: Mozart, String Quartets 14-19, Astree Audivus E 8596 (3CDs); Schubert, Quartets 10 and 13, Astree Audivus E 8580.

© Geoffrey Newman 2009