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S & H Concert Review

Janacek, String Quartet No 1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ & Smetana String Quartet No 1 in E minor ‘From My Life’, Emerson String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 18th November 2002 (MB)


Janacek’s searing Kreutzer Sonata and Smetana’s intensely autobiographical E minor sonata make an obvious pairing – yet one wonders whether the Emerson Quartet (with violinists and violist standing) quite appreciated that. Often these performances seemed run-of-the-mill, rightly capturing the dexterity so evident in both works, but making little headway in getting to the emotional core of these extraordinary quartets.

Little was made of the contrasts between tragedy and lightness in the Kreutzer, still less of the barely restrained passion which had ‘smouldered’ from Janacek’s pen. Throughout the first movement, for example, one was aware of a desperately glacial tone to both violins so at odds with the thematic material. The passionate love theme of the second movement was also somewhat harshly captured; literally soaring in its melody, but so emotionally removed in its feeling. Only in the fourth movement did one feel any intensity to the Emerson’s playing – with a notably graphic account of the murder. For all their impressive technical skills, however, this was a performance which largely lacked spontaneity and passion or subtlety and poignancy.

Tragedy precipitated the composition of Smetana’s E minor quartet, ‘…the catastrophe of complete deafness’. Here there was some superb playing – from the sonorous ‘cello melody in the Largo to some beautifully expressive phrasing in the final movement (although Eugene Drucker’s top E, two octaves above the open E string, wasn’t quite piercing enough in its brilliance: Smetana wrote that it was the ‘fateful ringing in my ears…which announced the beginning of my deafness’). A slight sourness from the viola temporarily marred the polka, itself rather too didactic in its phrasing, yet the Emersons were fully open to presenting this works vigour and vibrancy.

In recent years the Emerson Quartet have shown much greater depth than they used to in the quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich. These performances were ultimately disappointing for the shallowness of the interpretations, even though there can be little doubt we are listening to one of the great quartets of our time. Just a little of that peerless technique used at the service of the music would have made a world of difference to these performances.

Marc Bridle

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