The Emerson String Quartet, Meany Theater, Oct. 2, 2012
By Melinda Bargreen
It’s the end of an era: the Emerson String Quartet will have a membership change for the first time in 34 years when David Finckel, the cellist since 1979, departs the world’s most celebrated quartet this coming May. (Finckel is busy with several other musical endeavors, many of them with his pianist wife Wu Han.)
Of course, the quartet will go on with a new cellist, Paul Watkins. But the Oct. 2 performance in Meany Theater was the last one for the Emerson Quartet with Finckel in the cellist’s chair (and he’s the only one sitting, as this quartet’s practice is to perform with the other three players standing).
There isn’t sufficient room here to elaborate on the impressive string of international awards and kudos amassed by the ESQ during its long lifespan. Let’s just say that audiences expect the very highest level of quartet playing from this ensemble. And most of the time, they got exactly that in the Meany Theater performance, which spanned quartets of Haydn, Thomas Adès, and Brahms.
The group took a little time to settle in for the Haydn D Major Quartet (Op. 20, No. 4), with several tiny misjudgments and imprecise intonation in the first movement of the score. Haydn requires an uncompromising standard of playing, and the first movement was less than it might have been. . As the performance went on, however, things coalesced, and Haydn’s glowing Poco adagio movement was exemplary.
The evening’s curiosity was of course the Adès piece (the 41-year-old British composer’s name is pronounced “addis”), Composed for the Emersons, this work is called “The Four Quarters,” with movements representing various times of day: “Nightfalls,” “Serenade: Morning Dew,” “Days,” and “The Twenty-Fifth Hour.”
The opening movement began with spiky violin passages over drones from the other two instruments, dissolving into chords that morphed into various keys. Tones slid and drooped like Salvador Dali’s surrealist clocks; then “Nightfalls” abruptly stopped. Subsequent movements created different moods with a stylistic repertoire that owes a lot to Bartok, underlain with rhythmic motifs like the “lub-dub, lub-dub” heartbeat-like figure in the “Days” movement. The finale, with its rhythmically tricky 25/16 time signature, was impressively navigated but sounded more like a concept than like real communication.
“The Four Quarters” got a polite audience response but (except for a few enthusiasts) some rather underwhelming applause, and the word “interesting” popped up all over the subsequent intermission conversations. (“Interesting,” among classical audiences, is the term that means “I didn’t really like it, but I know it’s supposed to be impressive.”)
The final Brahms Quartet No. 2 in A Minor was a cornucopia of lush harmonies so strongly produced that the effect was positively orchestral. Finckel produced some particularly satisfying passages in the second (Andante moderato) movement, as if in farewell to the audiences who have enjoyed his playing so much over the years.
The encore, crisply articulated but warm in tone, was a Mozart arrangement of a Bach fugue – a lovely benediction to cap the performance.