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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Mozart, Britten Emerson String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, Monday November 22nd, 2004 (CC)


The technical excellence of the multi-award winning Emerson Quartet is well known. When I last heard them (in Haydn, all six quartets in one evening, and Beethoven) they impressed (at least on the Haydn night) by their superior blending. Yet the Beethoven had the feeling of something missing. Here, to a crowded if not sold-out Wigmore audience, the quartet chose to juxtapose Mozart and Britten. It turned out to be a winning combination.


Only recently we heard one of the six so-called ‘Haydn Quartets’, the D minor, K421, courtesy of the Quatuor Mosaïques (review). The Emerson Quartet gave us the first, the G major, K387 of 1782. Miraculous balancing and a lovely explosion of G major at the outset boded well, yet as the music went on there was a feeling that the essential element of wit was missing.


Better was the highly accented Menuetto with its striking use of open octaves in its Trio. It was just a shame the Emerson Quartet seemed unable to relax – the Andante cantabile, slightly overblown, was far from the place of repose it can, and indeed should, be. It should go without saying that the speedy articulation required in the finale was faultless, but octane levels were only fairly high.


The Emerson Quartet has mobile first and second violins, in that the two players alternate roles. Philip Setzer was a good if not inspiring first for the Haydn; Eugene Drucker took over for the Britten String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36 (1945).


The Second Quartet contains a ‘Chacony’ finale intended as a homage to Purcell. Mervyn Cooke’s programme note pointed towards Bartók as an influence, and this was certainly discernible towards the very opening before the music moves to more overtly Brittenish turf. The language here is very melodic. When Britten tries more overtly gestural means of expression, however, it came across in this performance as a compositional miscalculation.


The shadowy energy of the Vivace scherzo suited the Emersons to a tee though, and the remarkable finale – a set of variations, segregated into groups separated by cadenzas – came across as a compositional tour-de-force. The initial unison was preternaturally together, the Emerson Quartet later relishing the deep, sonorous harmonies. Here Britten’s writing is at its most concentrated; as the variations continue one become aware of the firmness of Britten’s conception. It is a superb movement, and one that on this occasion was given its full due.


Colin Clarke


Further Listening:


Britten String Quartet No. 2 Maggini Quartet Naxos 8.553883

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