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S&H Concert review

Beethoven and the String Quartet: Emerson String Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday November 8th, 2001 (CC).

Beethoven's three ‘Razumovsky’ quartets make for a satisfying evening’s listening. In the company of the right quartet, of course: and expectations were high after Tuesday night’s all-Haydn concert.

So what happened between then and Thursday night? This was like listening to a different, and much inferior, quartet. The first ‘half’ of the concert presented the first two quartets of Op. 59, and lasted one and a half hours. In these two quartets, Beethoven makes tremendous demands not only on his players but also on his listeners. To bring it off, a string quartet that really understands middle-period Beethoven is required and that simply was not the case in the present instance.

The F major quartet, Op. 59 No. 1 began well enough, David Finckel’s cello singing expressively, but warning signs began to appear as it became obvious that first violinist Eugene Drucker was having an off day. His tuning was frequently suspect and sometimes just plain painful. This prevented the performance coming together in any meaningful way, despite some well-managed climactic moments. The expressive cello lines of the Adagio molto e mesto were highlights of the third movement, but still the Emerson Quartet seemed unable to draw the audience into Beethoven’s world. With more to do than in Haydn, the violist Lawrence Dutton showed himself to be a sensitive and thoroughly musical player. The finale gave the distinct impression that they were only then beginning to warm up: but the problem is that Op. 59 No. 1 is not, and never will be, a warm-up piece.

Even if they had by now played themselves in, the two violins swapped places for Op. 59 No. 2, so that effectively they had to, if not start again, certainly go back a few steps. Philip Setzer, now on first violin, brought an improvement to matters of pitch without being entirely rock-solid himself in this respect. The violins’ exposed octaves of the first movement were scrappy, but the major fault occurred when vigour degenerated into mere scrubbing. Matters did improve with the slow movement, where there was convincing interplay between lines, but some parts which could have been sublime simply failed to make the grade. Even the Allegretto sagged, although the passing around of the Russian theme (used again by Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov) was successful.

After a well-deserved interval (I refer now to the audience, not to the Emerson’s), Drucker once more took the first violin’s chair for Op. 59 No. 3 in C. The harmonically wayward introduction gave way to a theme which was not on this occasion imbued with the sense of joy it needs. The third movement ‘Menuetto’ lived up to its ‘grazioso’ marking, but remained curiously and disappointingly anonymous at the same time. There was more of a sense of the quartet enjoying itself in the scampering final Allegro molto, but it was all too late to rescue the concert. The Emerson’s simply never recaptured the intensity and joy of Tuesday evening's concert, and they only fitfully evoked the real spirit of Beethoven.

Colin Clarke

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