The Emerson String Quartet warms up a wintry night with a memorable concert

Sat Jan 08, 2011 at 12:43 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Emerson String Quartet delivered outstanding performances of Berg and Debussy Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Even with a snowy evening and hazardous driving conditions, empty seats were scarce Friday night at Mandel Hall—N15 proving particularly popular—for the return of the Emerson String Quartet

The program, presented as part of the University of Chicago Presents series, was vintage Emerson, offering a chamber cornerstone, a 20th century semi-rarity, and providing an offbeat topspin to two familiar composers.

The concert opened with the final quartets of Haydn and Mendelssohn, both works left unfinished at the composers’ deaths.

Of his Quartet in D minor, Op. 103, Haydn only completed two movements. There’s not a particularly deep valedictory feel in the Andante grazioso, though the lyrical expression is perhaps a bit more somber than usual from this composer, as the music moves through a bewildering succession of keys.

Here and in the Menuetto movement, the Emersons showed their striking ability to change their sound for different composers. The  light bowing and gracious, elegant style succinctly conveyed the expressive qualities without traversing period parameters.

Mendelssohn’s final music for string quartet, the Andante and Scherzo, Op. 81, has little of the stark agitation and despair of its predecessor, the Quartet in F minor. Rather, this two-part fragment, published after the composer’s death, seems to look back to sunnier times, both in the accelerating variations of the Andante, and a Scherzo cast in Mendelssohn’s best elfin, light-footed fashion. The quartet provided richly idiomatic advocacy, playing with nimble agility and quicksilver charm, though first violinist Philip Setzer had some surprising bouts of wayward intonation.

Alban Berg’s String Quartet No. 3 was the last work produced under the tutelage of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg. Said to reflect Berg’s emotions at a time (1910) when his future wife’s father forbade the two lovers from seeing each other, the two-movement work is imbued with a sense of fin de siècle tragedy.

The Third Quartet also clearly shows Berg emerging from Schoenberg’s influence and more rigidly adhered 12-tone style. The work is a road marker in Berg’s oeuvre, the composer forging his distinctive brand of modified serialism–a ceaseless torrent of variations of fragments and intervals, allied to a surging, astringent lyricism that would find full maturity in the Violin Concerto and the opera, Lulu.

With the edge to the Emerson’s sound emphasized by the dry Mandel acoustic, the ensemble delivered a taut and powerful rendering of this extraordinary score. Surmounting the daunting technical complexities, the musicians brought out the unsettling harmonics and jagged asymmetric restlessness as well as Berg’s “wrong-note” Romanticism, conveying the intense emotional yearning beneath the sharp-edged surface. As with all great music, you felt like you experienced the world in this performance of Berg’s quartet—and in less than 20 minutes.

The Berg alone made it worth venturing out on a chilly night but the ensemble’s ensuing rendering of Debussy’s String Quartet was on the same imposing level.

Rarely will one hear this much-played chamber cornerstone given such attentive dynamic detailing and expressive nuance, Debussy’s music unfolding in a natural way that made you listen to this music with fresh ears.

Impeccably balanced, the performance blended Gallic elegance with a firmly focused rhythmic sense, the players consistently underlining the wistful nostalgic ache. Taking the first violin part, Eugene Drucker’s fluent refined tone fit this music like a finely tailored glove, and the seamless ensemble of his colleagues was comparably stellar. The Andantino proved the high point, with the concentrated playing of this gentle reverie seeming to make time stand still.

A witty feather-light encore of the gamboling Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E-Flat, Op. 44, no. 3, sealed a truly memorable evening of music in Hyde Park.

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