rebecca clarke

Chamber Music Northwest reviews: famous and unfamiliar fare

Emerson and Calidore Quartets excel in classics by male European composers, while Claremont Trio shines in works by three generations of female composers


Throughout his long and productive career, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) used the genre of the string quartet as an outlet for his emotions when his orchestral or operatic works had been criticized and suppressed by Stalin’s censors. Earlier this year, the Emerson String Quartet played Dmitri Shostakovich’s fourth quartet in an April 19 concert, and on July 8, still under the auspices of Chamber Music Northwest, they added the composer’s fourteenth quartet and on July 9, the eighth. What a treat to get to hear these wonderful players performing so much of the music of the 20th century’s greatest and most important composer of string quartets.

The Emersons — Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, cello —began the July 8 concert with a tasty seven-minute appetizer by the English 17th-century composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of his many chaconies small pieces originally written for what was called a consort of viols, generally a quartet of stringed instruments that were the immediate precursors of the modern violin, viola, cello, and double bass. In the Chacony in G Minor, Mr. Watkins took the part of the violone, the viol family’s version of the modern double bass. It was a plausible but hardly necessary introduction to the real business at hand: Shostakovich’s 14th Quartet followed by the same composer’s marvelous Prelude and Scherzo and then, in the concert’s second half, Mendelssohn’s miraculous Octet, written when the composer was only sixteen years old.

The Calidore Quartet joined the Emerson Quartet to play octets at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Shostakovich’s fourteenth and penultimate quartet (he also wrote fifteen symphonies) alternates between pensive and almost romantic passages. Shostakovich had begun the piece during a happy visit with the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whom he admired, at Britten’s home in England. Dedicated to a cellist, the quartet showcases that instrument at the beginning before the second-movement Adagio, where the cellist is joined by the first violinist while the other two quartet members play pizzicato. In the final movement Allegretto, the players toss melodic fragments among themselves, a task difficult to do but very effective when done well, as the Emersons demonstrated. The quartet then ends with a quiet return to the first movement’s lovely Adagio.

To end the concert’s first half, the Emersons then brought onstage the Calidore String Quartet to join their mentors in Shostakovich’s not-well-known Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, scored for double string quartet. The Emersons generously assigned their younger collaborators (violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, cellist Estelle Choi) the first-chair parts for this energetic composition by the young Shostakovich, written when he was just 18 years old. Especially in its super-vigorous Allegro molto, with all eight players sawing away like mad, it proved an effective piece on its own.


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