Saturday, January 24, 2009

Emerson Quartet in Jerusalem

The fourth concert of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s chamber music series featured the Emerson Quartet playing to a packed hall in an evening of works by Schubert and Shostakovich. Formed in 1976, the New York-based quartet is in residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Members are violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate as first and second violinists, Lawrence Dutton-viola and David Finckel-cello.

Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quartet in A minor D.804, “Rosamunde”, composed in 1824, was dedicated to the violinist Schuppenzigh, a violinist of the string quartet appointed by Beethoven, who also played in its premiere performance of the same year. Written in the shadow of the early days of Schubert’s fatal illness, the quartet has an air of melancholy, each movement beginning pianissimo. It also reminisces by quoting other works of the composer. With Philip Setzer as first violinist in this and the second work on the program, we were treated to the haunting “Rosamunde” theme and the contrasting intense moments of the first movement. From the delicate Andante to the Minuetto with its somber ‘cello message, to the final Allegro Moderato in which Schubert reminds us of his liking for the Hungarian idiom, we were presented with a clean, fine performance, perhaps one not quite moving enough for this personal testimony of Schubert’s.

The second work on the program was Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) String Quartet no. 13 in B flat minor, opus 138. Conceived in 1969 and completed in 1970, it, too, is a work composed at a time of chronic illness and its bleak message is presented uncompromisingly and in grim reality. Based on a twelve-tone row and constructed in a single movement slow-fast-slow form, the outer sections suggesting medieval organum, pace and tensions are the essence to this only attempt of the composer at a palindromic form. It was dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, violist of the Beethoven Quartet, giving the viola a very demanding and prominent role throughout and uses such effects as striking the wood of the bow on the body of the instrument. Violist Lawrence Dutton did justice to the central role played in this vehement and cynical canvas.

For the second half of the concert, Eugene Drucker took on the role of first violin. Schubert’s “Quartettsatz” (Quartet movement) in C minor D.703 (1820) is an unfinished work, consisting of one movement. (There are 40 bars of a second movement in evidence.) Written at a time of uncertainty in Schubert’s creative life, it does, however, make much greater demands on the ‘cellist, being the first chamber work intended for performance by professionals; Schubert, however, was not to hear it performed during his lifetime. The Emerson Quartet brought out both the feeling of unrest and turbulence and the Romantic singing qualities of this much-loved work. The quartet’s interpretation of it felt freer and more engaging than that of the “Rosamunde” Quartet.

“Every piece of music is a form of personal expression for its creator…If a work does not express the composer’s own personal point of view, his own ideas, then it doesn’t, in my opinion, even deserve to be born.”(Dmitri Shostakovich. 1973.) Shostakovich began working on his String Quartet no. 14 in F sharp major opus 142 in England, when visiting the home of Benjamin Britten in 1972, and he completed it in 1973. It was dedicated to Sergei Shirinsky, ‘cellist of the Beethoven Quartet, the quartet that had premiered most of Shostakovich’s quartets. The work consists of three movements – two animated movements flanking an Adagio movement. The first movement, opening with a droll theme given to the ‘cello, is contrapuntal, both agitated and whimsical, ending on a major chord. The Adagio was given a somber and melancholy reading, becoming intense and tragic at times. Moving straight into the third movement, the Emerson Quartet presented intense, driving, atonal moments, offset by dreamy, hazy Shostakovich “landscapes”, contrasted by a Romantic melody in the first violin backed by pizzicato on the ‘cello. Recalling elements from the two previous movements, the work ends on the optimistic note of a major chord.

There is much to be said for the fine programming of this concert. The Emerson Quartet’s playing is polished and it is a paradigm of fine string playing. However, I felt the quartet’s playing reached out more to the intellect than to touch the spirit of the listener.

The Emerson Quartet
Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer-violins
Lawrence Dutton-viola
David Finckel-‘cello
Concert no. 4 of the Chamber Concert Series of the Jerusalem Music Centre
The Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem YMCA
January 8, 2009

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