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Seen and Heard International Festival Review


Aspen Music Festival II: Emerson String Quartet, music of Tower, Britten, Brahms, Janacek, Debussy, Shostakovich, 13th & 15th July 2004 (HS)


In years past the Emerson Quartet has tackled big projects at the Aspen Music Festival. One year they played all the Bartok quartets. The year they played all the Shostakovich Quartets, the result was a landmark 5-disc recording. Last year an all-Haydn concert included an unforgettable Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.


Without a unifying theme this year, the Emerson's two concerts found them dabbling in a range of late Romantic and more modern music. On July 13 the audience overflowed onto extra chairs placed at the back of the stage in the 500-seat Harris Hall for a program that included Incandescent, a 2003 piece by Joan Tower; the thorny String Quartet No. 2 in C major by Benjamin Britten, and the gentle, elegaic Clarinet Quintet in B minor by Johannes Brahms. Two nights later, a crowd of similar size rattled around in the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent for Léos Janacek's gushy String Quartet No. 2 "Intimate Letters"; Claude Debussy's little jewel of a String Quartet in G minor, and Dmitri Shostakovich's gripping String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major.


That's actually quite a range of musical styles. To my ears, the Emerson seemed to want the discipline of inhabiting a single composer's world, as in the special projects. Oh, they played everything with their characteristic accuracy and attention to detail, but it took the Shostakovich to deliver something truly exciting.


And, wow, was it ever. One moment to treasure came in the fourth movement. Violist Lawrence Dutton played a hushed, hauntingly gorgeous lyrical melody, and just when the audience was breathing softly with it, the rest of the quartet interrupted with a series of jagged chords. The contrast practically lifted me out of my seat. A few measures later, Philip Setzer, playing first violin, sprinkled pizzicato notes like pixie dust on a chorale of ineffable sadness. That was playing of extraordinary depth.


Many of the Emerson's strengths were on display in the Shostakovich -- a rhythmic pulse that makes a listener's body move, enviable articulation that lets the most complex passages sound clearly, and the ability to create sounds of beauty or rank ugliness, as the music demands. These guys were born to play Shostakovich, as their complete cycle amply demonstrates.


Janacek uses many of the same kinds of rhythmic and sonic effects in his music, and in the "intimate Letters" quartet he unpacks the whole bag of tricks -- getting the players to bow next to the bridge, tapping their bows on the strings, whistling high harmonics -- all in an effort to keep the essentially sentimental melodies (dedicated to the married woman he loved, Kamila Stösslova) from being too gooey. It makes for some rapt contrasts, and this performance had its moments, but it never quite caught the spirit the way the Shostakovich did.


The Debussy quartet is a wonderful lark, a plush toy of a musical piece that ravishes the ear with jazzy harmonies, modal melodies and sounds we know well from Debussy's later works. It was a radical piece at its debut in 1893, but it just feels like a comfortable sweater now. The Emerson's performance was clean and supple, but whatever it was that made it radical did not penetrate to my seat. Maybe it's just too intimate a piece for such a big space.


In Harris Hall two days earlier, the ratcheting-up of sonic and rhythmic intensity of Tower's piece made a powerful effect. There isn't much melodic content, but the composer succeeds in her intention of building up heat, letting in recede, and building it up repeatedly in different ways -- with pitch, with harmony, with rhythm and in various combinations. It's a fascinating ride.


It seemed like a nice idea to follow this with the Britten quartet. Written in 1945, the piece reflects the state of disillusionment the composer was feeling on his return to England following the ravages of World War II. Itís a downer, and a highly austere one at that. The musical language is tough, hard-edged, unrelenting. In this performance, nothing much emerged to flesh out that feeling.


The Brahms quintet featured the pure, lyrical contributions of Joaquin Valdepeñas, principal clarinet of the Toronto Symphony and a longtime Aspen Music Festival regular. It should have been the perfect antidote to the poisonous depression of the Britten quartet. The net effect was calming, maybe too much so. It seemed more like a welcome late-afternoon nap than an evening's restorative conversation. The quartet and Valdepeñas made ravishing sounds, but in the end it never achieved liftoff.


The Shostakovich 9th made up for it.


Harvey Steiman



Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through its conclusion in mid August.


The Festivalís website is at


Harvey Steimanís reviews from the 2002 festival are available here and his reviews from the 2003 here. In both instances, please scroll down the page to the International Concerts and Festival section of the index page.

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