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Emerson String Quartet Excels at Music Mountain

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Aug 5th, 2019

From left: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Paul Watkins, Lawrence Dutton at Gordon Hall

While the nation has applauded the numerous recordings of the Emerson String Quartet with nine Grammy Awards, New Englanders have more of an opportunity to hear their superb performances live.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart led such a short life (1756-1791) that it remains astonishing when one considers the depth and intensity of his work. Even when played with mediocrity, Mozart’s work can remain interesting, yet when played by the first rank of musicians, Mozart is simply intoxicating, passage by passage, note by note. So it was with the Emerson String Quartet’s performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D major, K. 575, the first of a series of six quartets which bestows special emphasis on the cello because it was commissioned by King Frederick William II who played the cello. It appears likely that Mozart was never paid for the work, nor did he complete the series, writing only three quartets and not six. Yet those late 1789 compositions are great masterpieces that feature more robust input from the cello than was traditionally current at that time. And yet these three “Prussian” quartets received no recognition during Mozart’s life.

When Mozart is played in a peak performance, each note carries one into a portal where time appears elongated into another dimension; this effect was arrestingly noticeably in the opening Allegretto movement by first violinist Philip Setzer and second violinist Eugene Drucker engaged in lyrical duet. Lawrence Dutton’s viola was central to the tender plangent quality of the following Andante. In the fourth movement concluding Allegretto, cellist Paul Watkins delivered an amazing low gravity undercurrent of gaiety to swell the finale into gorgeous, unified bloom.

For Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet in E-flat major, Op., 51 (1879), one hundred years after Mozart’s quarter, Eugene Drucker played first violin. Dvořák’s string quartets are perhaps his most exciting contribution to music. Written with a decided Slavic slant, Dvořák expanded the sensibility of what could be done in a quartet. The opening first movement reveled in harmony and rhythm, while the second movement excelled in the contrast between Dumka and Elegy where Dutton’s viola excelled. The Romanze was both intensely lyrical as well as edgily pensive, where Watkins on cello coaxed intimate emotion. The delightful Finale with its Czech dance tunes discovered joyful spontaneity where Drucker’s violin soared as it intimated that the joy of music was eternally transcendental.  

Someone sitting near me said “When you hear the name of the Emerson String Quartet one thinks of Shostakovich, Shostakovich, Shostakovich.” And why not? Are not Shostakovich and Stravinsky the two greatest composers of the twentieth century? Who else would one want to play Shostakovich? Last month at Music Mountain the American String Quartet turned in a marvelous performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet # 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108.

Completed on November 1, 1952, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet # 5 in B-flat major, Op. 92 was not able to be performed until after the death of Stalin in March 1953. The Beethoven String Quartet premiered the work on November 13th of that year. Written during a time when both Sergei Prokofiev and Shostakovich were under attack for political apathy, the opening Allegro with Watkins’ resonant cello achieves a nearly symphonic quality with a tour-de-force conclusion of Setzer’s first violin countering with a long-held high F, as if registering an intense lament-tribute for the death of Prokofiev, as the more mellow viola of Dutton persuades the violin to give up lament and go back to work composing music with other instruments in the second movement. The sustained chord in the third-elided Allegretto movement accompanied by Drucker’s melancholy second violin recalls the previous lament theme, as a more extroverted waltz galvanizes the quartet into forging a unified determination to move forward, yet the quiet reversal conclusion once more meditates on the precarious state and fate of musicians. This was a sentiment for music lovers to take to heart under an administration that has cut all government funding for musicians; the National Symphony Orchestra at Kennedy Center, founded in 1931, is closing: ).

After three enthusiastic bows the quartet played Dvořák’s slightly melancholy Cypresses # 7 with the theme “I wander off past yonder house.”

How did the Emerson String Quartet come to play at Music Mountain? A patrons Harold and Deko  Klebanoff supplied substantial funding to underwrite the cost of their appearance. This was a most special concert: hearing the greatest quartet in this country in action bestowed an elevated theta moment on the consciousness of all present. A YouTube video of the Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovitch's Eighth String Quartet appears below.

Music Mountain continues its Summer Festival with the St. Petersburg String Quartet next Sunday.