New cellist makes a natural fit with Emerson Quartet

August 15, 2013
By Dennis Polkow

The Emerson Quartet performed Beethoven and Britten Tuesday night at Ravinia.

String quartets come and go, but some have made a major cultural impact by their sheer longevity. Fewer still have made such an impact with their membership intact.

The Emerson Quartet began decades ago when its members were still students at Juilliard. Becoming professional in the bicentennial year of 1976, the group named itself after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson personnel has been the same since 1979, and the feeling had long been that if one member were to leave, the others would call it a day. Still, when cellist David Finckel announced two years ago that he would be leaving the ensemble to concentrate on other projects, a reprieve might be possible, if the right cellist could be found.

Enter British cellist Paul Watkins, who formally joined up with violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton in May, their initial concerts together having taken place abroad. The group’s first American concerts are occurring at summer music festivals, including a stop at the Ravinia Festival Tuesday night.

Starting the concert with the Beethoven Razumovsky Quartet No. 7 in F Major Op. 59, No. 1 was a nice gesture of welcome, the cello launching the work.  Watkins played confidently and cherubically smiled and studiously eyeballed his colleagues at their respective entrances.

As the piece unfolded, it was clear that while Watkins’ ensemble  ability within the group was extraordinary for having been publicly performing with it less than three months, he was still working his way up to the proper dynamic level needed for an ideal balance. The bottom end was not as defined when the quartet was playing together as it had been with Finckel, which no doubt will come in time.

The thought that the veteran Emerson members might play with a more subdued approach by bringing in a younger player with a more refined sound, was palpable and there were certainly moments like that throughout the evening. But by and large, the other three continued to play with the same level of gusto and volume as has long been the Emerson signature sound. What Watkins did bring to Op. 59, No. 1 was a wonderful playfulness and charm which often became contagious with his colleagues.

The Razumovsky Quartet No. 8 in f minor, Op. 59, No. 2 formed a fitting contrast, being a much more intense and serious piece than No. 1. The highlight was the Molto adagio movement, which was played poignantly by all, with considerable attention to fanning out dynamically and dramatically.

The real curiosity of the evening was the Britten Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, one of the last works Britten wrote and being performed Tuesday for the Britten Centennial.

More than thirty years had passed since Britten had written string quartets back in the 1940s, but like so many composers on the verge of mortality, he turned to the intimate form to make one of his last musical statements, albeit on commission from the Amadeus Quartet.

The five-movement piece traverses a range of styles and tonalities, as if to serve as a flashback of the various movements that surrounded, influenced and sometimes evaded Britten throughout his lifetime. There are shades of Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, jazz, atonality, et al, no direct quotes, all wrapped up in a kind of Mahler-like collage technique.

What was on Britten’s mind in composing such a piece at the end of his life is anyone’s guess, but it does come across as a Aristotelian examination of conscience of sorts, as if to say, I could have gone this way or that way, but I went my own way. That individuality is reflected in the final section of the piece, a mesmerizing passacaglia which contains a paraphrase from his last opera, Death in Venice.

There is also the possibility that the whole thing is a practical joke of some sort, as much within this score, despite some surface seriousness, is actually quite whimsical.

The Britten quartet received the most polished performance of the evening and called upon all four players to be at the top of their game to make it work. Unlike the Beethoven, where it seemed that Watkins was still filling another’s shoes, every aspect of this performance was more unified and organic.

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