Emerson Quartet, Works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bartok,Vancouver Playhouse, March 6, 2011.

As I noted in last year’s review of the Emerson Quartet’s annual Vancouver concert (Korea Daily, 10-05-27), there seems to be an ongoing transformation of this illustrious quartet’s performances.  Largely gone are the days of demonstrative shows of power, brilliance, and narcissistic emphasis, allowing the true virtues of this ensemble to be clearly seen.  What we now get are performances that are incomparably jeweled and balanced which, free of extra adornment, take the listener on a concentrated journey from the beginning of a work to its end.  


This was most evident in the major work on the program, the Sixth Quartet of Bela Bartok.  This is the final composition in what is probably the most striking quartet cycle of the 20th C., written in 1939, fusing a Hungarian folk idiom with the widest range of compositional innovations.  Working from soloistic presentations of a unifying ‘mesto’ theme, there are peasant dance rhythms, pizzicato interludes, dissonant chording, and the very deepest quiet moments that Bartok often called his ‘night music’.  The Emerson’s gave an exquisitely-judged performance that took us from the viola’s deeply-felt opening statement to the cello’s final quiet pizzicato with remarkable integration and intensity.  This was one of the most fluent and complete performances that I have heard, fully at the service of the music.

Much the same musical integrity was found in the two works performed earlier in the concert, the Mozart ‘Dissonance’ Quartet and the Mendelssohn Quartet, Op 44, No. 3.  Both were given meaningful and well-structured expositions, featuring uncanny precision and balance between all four players.  True, this was big, ‘objective’ quartet playing, and some might feel that a more intimate response to the classical roots of both compositions is appropriate.  Certainly some of the quicksilver qualities of the Mozart were absent, and its second movement was perhaps too heavy and moulded, but the compensating virtue was that its initial allegro brought out a striking rhythmic parallel to the String Quintet, K. 515, while its finale had a strong sense of inevitability. 

The Emerson’s broad approach to the Mendelssohn gave this work expositional ‘space’ and increased its overall strength.  While this work is often thought to look back to Haydn and Mozart, here the terseness and weight of the playing took us forward to Brahms.  This was a less sweet, less frenetic, and less fragile Mendelssohn than we are used to.  Some of the tonal qualities produced actually sounded larger than a mere quartet; interesting, since a number of passages were actually given the same momentum and feel as the composer’s famous String Octet!  This interpretation may have been somewhat out-size, but it was again executed with great thought and conviction and moved convincingly from beginning to end.

I am hesitant to declare the transformation of the Emerson as fully complete, but there is clearly much more musical awareness and judgment, and much less reliance on sheer technical bravado, in their current interpretations.  Indeed, removing the over-projection allows one an even greater respect for the ensemble’s extraordinary tonal control and pristine balance.  The observation also challenges the idea that celebrated ensembles always produce a ‘fixed product’ over time.  We have seen this before.  One of the most cultivated, pure and beautiful-sounding quartets of this past century is the Quartetto Italiano.  However, if you read reviews over their first fifteen years, they were regarded as very exciting but incredibly wayward, changing tempos arbitrarily and full of self-conscious touches.  Quite different than the way they ended up.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011