Emerson String Quartet Performs Late Haydn and Early Beethoven

Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, “Emperor”
Beethoven, String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Haydn, String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6
Beethoven, String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6

How is the Emerson String Quartet sounding these days? Now in its 40th year – and two seasons after a personnel change – the quintessential modern American chamber ensemble finds itself not quite at the top of its game. While the program for Saturday evening’s concert, presented by Smithsonian Associates at Baird Auditorium, did not play to the quartet’s strengths, the ensemble also betrayed some signs of frailty amidst its trademark energy and vigor.

Listeners accustomed to the technical precision and glossy sheen of the Emerson Quartet’s studio recordings would have been taken aback by some of the unpolished playing on Saturday, especially from the violins, who appear to be the weak links at the moment. The concert got off to an inauspicious start, with Philip Setzer, playing the first violin part in Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 (“Emperor”), sagging flat in the exposition. Setzer righted his intonation after the piece’s first repeat but offered consistently blunt, heavy-handed playing. Eugene Drucker, taking over as first violin after the intermission, played with greater finesse – especially in the sweetly lyrical slow movements – but still showed some sluggishness in fast passagework.

The quartet’s newest member, Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, has the lightest, warmest, and most beautiful tone in the ensemble but on Saturday still, at times, sounded as though he drifted in from another group.  Violist Lawrence Dutton proved a steadying presence with his mellow playing and restraint.

The group is currently in the middle of a season-long traversal of Haydn’s Op. 76 and Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets. This exploration of the influence of late Haydn on early Beethoven could make for fascinating series of concerts, but this 18th-century repertory does not come naturally for an ensemble whose greatest successes include searing recordings of late Beethoven and Shostakovich. The Emerson Quartet has taken on none of the lessons of the historically-informed performance movement (not always or necessarily a bad thing), and its emphatic, straightforwardly robust approach was not an ideal fit for the Haydn, which could have used a lighter touch and a greater variety of accents and articulation. Still, there were moments to savor, such as the players heartily digging into the rustic folk melody in the Op. 76, No. 3 quartet and the searching lyricism of the slow movement in the Op.76, No. 6 quartet.

The Emerson’s approach proved more successful for the two Beethoven quartets on the program, as even though these pieces date from only a few years after Haydn’s Op. 76, they are a generation apart. Certainly, the Emerson Quartet’s pensive, brooding intensity in the “La Malinconia” passages from Beethoven’s Quartet in B-Flat, Op. 18, No. 6, was far more modern sounding than anything in the Haydn quartets.

Musicologist Joseph Kerman, writing of Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 2 Quartet in G Major, observed that while the work clearly shows the influence of Haydn’s comedy of manners and musical language, it never could really pass for Haydn’s work – and wasn’t intended to. The Emerson players made the most out of Beethoven’s sly humor – the play with dynamic contrasts, phrasing, and subverted expectations – and capped the piece with a sprightly, witty, and sharply accented finale full of energy and charm.  They showed that there was still life in these old bones.

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