Emerson Quartet spices Dvořák Fest with varied menu of chamber works

Mon Jun 15, 2009 at 1:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Emerson Quartet performed Sunday as part of the CSO’s Dvořák Festival.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra ceded the Orchestra Hall stage to the Emerson String Quartet Sunday afternoon for the sole (entirely) chamber music event of the Dvořák Festival.

Following their festival debut the previous evening with the Czech composer’s String Quintet, Sunday’s matinee offered two Dvořák chestnuts framing a centerpiece rarity, the String Quartet in G Major, Op. 106. 

The last of Dvořák’s fourteen quartets to be published, and the penultimate to be composed, the G major work shows the composer continuing to explore the genre, with music that offers characteristic open-hearted lyricism yet with a more tart harmonic bite, the progress of the final movement repeatedly slowed for admonitory backward glances.

With Philip Setzer in the first violin position, the Emersons proved completely in synch with the valedictory quality of this late work from the darkly meditative Adagio to the rather equivocal finale, and the lightning gear-shifts of the coda were handled with tremendous panache.

Eugene Drucker took the first violin for the “American” String Quartet in F major, which led off the program. Though hardly an overlooked curio, it’s indicative of the Emersons’ artistry that they can bring such freshness and expressive imagination to even the familiar Op. 96. The musicians were especially inspired in the Largo, lightly plumbing the withdrawn, searching expression, and conveying the unmistakable sense of Dvořák’s wistful longing for his native Bohemia. The performance was idiomatic and fully committed, though surprisingly rugged at times considering these players’ reputation for gleaming technical facility. 

Jeffrey Kahane joined the ensemble for Dvořák’s evergreen Piano Quintet, and the pianist/conductor proved a first-class colleague. Kahane’s lively keyboard work perfectly meshed with the Emerson’s vital approach, sparking the most fiery and impassioned performance of the afternoon.

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