Emerson Quartet review: Maintaining mastery

Esteemed ensemble’s 20th century Chamber Music Northwest program shows undiminished energy and excellence


Almost since its inception in 1976, the Emerson String Quartet has been regarded as one of the elite quartets. Its awards, prizes, and “best recording” accolades are innumerable, and although, with just one personnel change in 41 years, all its members are no longer young, its sound is still clean and creamy. Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest scored a coup in landing the Emersons as its Ensemble-in-Residence for the 2016-17 season, thanks to a generous gift from one of their contributors, Laura Meier. So it was a bit of surprise that there were some 50 or 60 empty seats at its April 19 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, sponsored by CMNW.

The Emerson Quartet playing last summer at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

That said, a lot of the filled seats were occupied by young people rather than the white-hairs who dominate audiences for classical music in Portland. One imagines that it was the program, and its location at Reed, that brought out the twenty-somethings. All of the Emerson’s repertoire was from the 20th century, including such “difficult” composers as Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Alban Berg (1885-1935), and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), as well as Samuel Barber (1910-1981). This made for a pretty fair representation of 20th-century string quartet music.

Wisely, I think, the Emersons began with Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3 from 1927. “Wisely” because it was the thorniest and most “difficult” selection of the evening, and would have made a poor finishing piece. In it, Bartók allegedly moved away from his reliance on Hungarian folk music in his first two quartets and toward his later, more atonal style. The Third is routinely cited either as an outlier among Bartók’s six quartets (written from 1909 to 1939) or as the most representative. Having recently listened again to all six, as recorded by the Juilliard Quartet in 1965, I can’t grasp either claim.

Bartók is universally accepted as one of the composers most responsible for the 20th century’s movement away from conventional tonality. Although he himself insisted that his music was not atonal, it is next-to-impossible for the educated listener to find in the quartets any genuine connection to conventional tonality. Bartók was always leaning toward the dissonant and the harmonically inscrutable.

I find a great deal of rhythmic energy in all six, including the Third, but precious little melodic or harmonic plausibility. Although I risk branding myself as a musical philistine, so virtually unanimous is the favorable — nay, rapturous — reputation of the quartets, I find nothing to move me in them. To understand their structure one needs to study the scores. But studying scores is not listening to music.

I can easily understand why good string quartets like to tackle them: they present challenges in technique and interpretation. And overcoming these challenges, or at least facing them, must be a real rush.

But for the listener? I think Bartók’s quartets are the beneficiaries of a certain moment in classical music when an influential number of talented composers decided not to try to out-Bach Bach or out-Wagner Wagner or out-Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky but rather to strike out in a new directions by changing the very language of music. Whether they succeeded is a question that has yet to be seriously posed, let alone decided.

So. The Emersons provided another presentation of Bartók’s Third, longer at 21 minutes longer than the program’s predicted fifteen, and very much up to the standard of their recorded version from 2007. They matched their vibratos brilliantly — how do all four players oscillate at the same rate?

The next piece on the program again featured vibratos, this time less pleasantly. Barber’s Adagio for Strings was adapted for string orchestra from the middle (second) movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. The orchestra version is so popular as to have become a platitude on concert stages and classical radio stations throughout the world. The quartet version, although not different except in number of players, is far less done, at least when separated from its allegro first and third movements.

The reason the orchestral version is preferred is simple: it’s better. Both its lugubrious melodic lines and its powerful (and loud) climax at the top of its instruments’ ranges work better when rendered by multiple players on a part, when the individual vibratos of the strings combine to sound rich, rather than by the single lines of the quartet.

As demonstrated by the Emersons, even with vibratos carefully matched, the four instruments all seem to be playing not just notes in harmony with one another, but oscillations: not just continuous straight sounds but long, wobbling ones. Barber’s virtually tempo-free adagio emerges as four feverish tremors. Perhaps there is a way to play this quartet movement with less vibrato — less of the perpetually shaking left hands — and still provide the depth of tone that vibrato can provide. And perhaps not.

Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3 from 1910 was written just as the composer finished his studies with Arnold Schoenberg, who advocated the new, twelve-tone technique that never entirely caught on with his student, although later composers — Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Pierre Boulez (b. 1925-2016), for example — took it up. This quartet, consisting of two movements, the first slow and the second less so, is characterized by a free approach to tonality that pushes at the atonal without being completely untethered. Its main feature, though, is a restlessness in which no matter how deliberate the music is at any instant, a passage of rhythmic declamation is a matter of seconds away. This gives the composition, as with most of Berg’s music, an energy that almost single-handedly carries the piece. The Emersons’ performance was a full seven minutes shorter than the fifteen listed in the program.

The entire second half of the program was occupied by Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 4, written in 1949. Shostakovich is the 20th century’s most important composer of string quartets, having written fifteen from 1938 to 1974. From the dark days of Stalin into the comparatively freer period following the dictator’s death in 1953, Shostakovich wrote quartets whenever his other compositions received government criticism. The Fourth, about 26 minutes long, was written during such a period of public reprimand, but it was not premiered until after Stalin had died. In many ways the gentlest of Shostakovich’s quartets, two of its four movements, the second’s Andantino and the fourth’s Allegretto, end quietly, and a good part of the second and third are played with mutes on all four instruments.

Here, the soaring first violin part in the first movement was beautifully played, but the second movement is the centerpiece. The cello doesn’t participate at first and then finally enters with a lovely singing melody. The finish comes with all instruments muted and they continue so for the first five minutes of the third-movement Allegretto. The mutes come on again six minutes into the final movement, which ends with a quiet little melody by the cello, played in harmonics.

Overall, it was a mesmerizing performance of a wonderful piece of music. Even without a slam-bang finish, the concert seemed perfectly concluded. The Emersons then repaid several standing ovations with a short and tasty encore.

They return this summer in Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival. On July 7, members Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker will perform in their own music. On July 8, the Emerson join the their proteges in the Calidore Quartet in music by Purcell, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. And on July 9, the Emerson Quartet plays still more Shostakovich, Beethoven and Purcell.

Recommended recordings

• Bartók, String Quartet No. 3
Bartók: The Six String Quartets, Juilliard String Quartet (Columbia Masterworks D3L 317 (set): ML 6102, 6103, 6104), 1965.
Bartók: String Quartets Nos. 1-6, Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 4776322), 2007.
Bartók: String Quartets Nos. 1-6, Guarneri Quartet (RCA G0100017420413), 2009.

• Barber, Adagio for Strings (orchestral version)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein conducting (Deutsche Gammophon 477 6352 9), 2007.

• Berg, String Quartet, Op. 3
Tokyo String Quartet: Quartet Recital 1971 (Hánssler CD 93.723), 2013.

• Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 4
Borodin Quartet (Praga PRD250331), 1966.
Jerusalem Quartet (Harmonia Mundi HMG508392/93), 2012.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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