Emerson Quartet brings luminous drama to three final works at Ravinia

July 07, 2011
By Doyle Armbrust

The Emerson String Quartet performed the final quartets of Haydn, Schubert and Bartok Wednesday night at Ravinia. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

It’s hard to account for what the brain chooses to retain, but as a young viola Padawan at the Musicorda Festival in 1994, I’ve never forgotten a chamber-music insight cellist David Finckel offered during a particularly engaging masterclass: “One of our biggest frustrations as quartet players is when an audience member approaches us after a concert and says, ‘You sounded like one instrument!’” By its very nature, the quartet repertoire allows each of the personalities emanating from the four chairs on stage a unique voice, but Wednesday’s Ravinia appearance by the Emerson Quartet also elucidated why audiences might have this reaction.

Luminous, crystalline articulation was the centerpiece of the Martin Theatre performance last night as violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Finckel coursed through a program of culminations: the final notes of Haydn, the last quartet of Bartok, and the posthumously premiered quartet of Schubert. A clever bit of programming for summer festival attention spans and tastes, these scores are immediate and arresting while not overly familiar.

“Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I,” wrote Haydn in the manuscript for his unfinished Quartet in D Minor, Op 103, the last of his 68 monumental offerings in the genre. With his health and artistic inspiration in parallel recession, the granddaddy of the string quartet penned the inner movements of his final work before retiring completely from the endeavor of composition.

It is difficult not to hear fragments of the composer’s personal anguish throughout the Andante grazioso, and the Emersons embodied Haydn’s progressive harmonic explorations by compellingly voicing out the viola and second violin lines at enharmonic pivot points. Taking pole position here (the Emerson violinists exchange chairs for each piece), Philip Setzer’s poised bow arm infused the proceedings with palpable gallantry.

That audiences are still referring to Bartok’s oeuvre as “new” or “strange” some seventy years later is unfathomable, but it was clear (from Row E at least) that Ravinia patrons are still divided on the subject. What is irrefutable, however, is that when one hears the Emerson Quartet perform the Hungarian’s scores, one sees behind the curtain of tonal clusters and labyrinthine rhythms. If the Emerson bows were reluctant to get down in the proverbial dirt for Bartok’s more harsh and menacing material, say in the sweaty burlesque of the third movement Burletta, the illumination of the compositional architecture here overshadowed any lack of fuego.

Opening the piece, violist Dutton’s unaccompanied statement of the pervasive Mesto (“sadly”) theme was brimming with a restrained anguish, an immediacy that magnetized the room. Dutton also drew the only audible chuckles of the evening for the pizzicato accompaniment to the second movement cello solo, played at the hip, “a la guitarra.” Following the well-executed quarter-tone violin duets of the Burletta, the Emersons emerged into the final movement, marked simply “Mesto,” with a pathos emblematic of a piece written with a World War within sight, and the composer’s mother nearing death. The most transcendental moment of the night arrived with Finckel’s resplendent pizzicati, a finale that leaves the listener with a sliver of hope after four movements largely to the contrary.

What felt somewhat like detachment from the Emersons in the first half of the concert proved to be an erudite choice of pacing as Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 in G Major swept the audience up in a gust of the composer’s tremulous contrasts. With Drucker now in the first chair, the sudden swoop of G major to minor within the first bars of the piece surfaced a level of drama unmatched by even the most fraught moments of the Bartok performance. Schubert’s quartet plays like a primer in bow technique, and the Emersons displayed a right-arm panache that is almost distracting in its efficacy. This was nowhere more evident than the Trio of the third movement Scherzo in which Dutton and Finckel’s quarter-plus-half note figure was positively buoyant below the lyrical violin lines.

Graciously returning to the stage for an encore after the first violin concerto that is the fourth movement (Allegro assai), the quartet closed this concert of conclusions with the third of Dvorak’s bucolic Cypresses, a dreamy lullaby to send the audience into the night in Highland Park.

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