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S & H Recital Review

Bach & Beethoven, Emerson Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 6th March 2004 (AN)

Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer (violins); Lawrence Dutton (viola); David Finckel (cello).

Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) by Johann Sebastian BACH

Contrapunctus 1
Contrapunctus 3
Contrapunctus 5
Contrapunctus 7
Canon at the Tenth 16
Contrapunctus 8 for string trio
Contrapunctus 10
Contrapunctus 12 (Mirror fugues for quartet)
Canon in Augmentation and Contrary Motion 14
Contrapunctus 18

String Quartet in B flat, Opp.130 & 133 (1825-6) by Ludwig van Beethoven

Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
Andante con moto ma non troppo
Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai
Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo
Overtura: Allegro – Fuga


Let me set the scene: four dinner-jacket-clad musicians walk on to the stage and stand in place - the cellist alone sits between the violins and viola. With less decorum, however, second violinist Eugene Drucker gives the still-fidgeting audience little warning as he plunges into an awkwardly-fingered solo line that defies all melodic logic with its clumsy string-crossings.

But this hitch was forgotten as soon as the Emerson Quartet’s full capacity took the reigns with a brilliant and sophisticated execution of these selected movements from Bach’s contrapuntal masterpiece. The sweet maturity of the Emerson sound was strikingly beautiful. Moreover, a tempered collaboration of technical consistency and musical homogeneity made a perfect ally for a composition that was probably designed for pedagogical and intellectual contemplation at the keyboard.

The Emerson Quartet made good sense of the increasingly-complicated constructions in ‘The Art of Fugue’. That the instrumental differentiation within the quartet itself catered for the separate voices was understood by the Emersons who did well not to stoop to vulgar characterisations. A clear and confident pulse that anchored the intricate musical language was the natural consequence of the Emerson's fundamental accuracy and integrity of tempi and dynamic choices.

First violinist Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton played particularly well. Setzer was possibly the most confident performer on stage but it was Dutton’s untiring energy and passion that injected real vibrancy. How appropriate that the lively Dutton should round off this unfinished contrapuntal tour de force with a sudden break where Bach began to use an energetic theme based on his own name!

In common Emerson practice, the violinists swapped seats for the Beethoven so that Drucker was now leading. I did wonder at this choice as it was quite clear from the Bach that Setzer was the more secure player.

The opening of the Beethoven was impeccably delivered – the bright, crisp sonority was quite a startling departure from the more mellow and muted Bach. After such an impressive start there were less glorious moments of dubious intonation and uncommitted sounds from the cello, but the general richness of vibrato and tone quality outshone any discrepancies.

The second movement Andante con moto ma non troppo was certainly one of the highlights of this colourful performance: a flexible and yet controlled rendition brought out a delightful transparency and playful nostalgia that sounded almost Mahlerian at times.

And what a finale! Beethoven's notorious ‘Great Fugue’ stood as the barbaric heavyweight piece to answer to Bach’s fugal offering. Once again, the Emerson Quartet captured the essence: for the first time during the concert there was real sense of instability and danger. These episodes of violence were interjected with passages of calm which momentarily allayed the fear of total chaos and destruction. The viola contributed a powerfully grounding presence that made some sense of what the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reviewer at the 1826 premiere called a "Babylonian confusion"!

The Emerson Quartet was received with a standing ovation. In return for the generous reception, Setzer announced an encore – albeit in muted tones, hence my questionable paraphrasing: "…a chorale by Bach…so beautiful we’d like to play, even though…not a suitable ending". This meditative antidote to the mayhem of the ‘Great Fugue’ was a welcome relief and went some way towards calming the excited audience members not to mention curbing their desires for a second encore.

Aline Nassif




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