Death (and the Maiden) becomes Emerson Quartet best at Ravinia

Tue Jul 08, 2014 at 12:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Emerson String Quartet performed music of Beethoven and Schubert Monday night at the Ravinia Festival

Personnel changes in long-established chamber groups can often be profound—sometimes enlivening, sometimes debilitating. The Juilliard Quartet, for instance, sounded rejuvenated two weeks ago at Ravinia, playing with fire and fresh intensity with new violist Roger Tapping.

The Emerson String Quartet’s concert Monday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theater proved a more mixed bag overall but likewise showed a new member fitting nicely into a veteran ensemble. David Finckel departed the group last year and his successor, Paul Watkins, is clearly proving a fine addition. Initially a bit reticent in projection, the Welsh cellist was soon blending superbly with the three founding Emerson members, and Watkins’ burnished tone and committed playing were a consistent pleasure.

The program focused on two minor-key cornerstones by Schubert and Beethoven. It takes special dedication to bring a sense of fresh discovery to Schubert’s inescapable Quartet in D minor, “Death and the Maiden.” Yet, with Eugene Drucker in the first violin chair, the Emersons put across a vital and impassioned performance of this thrice-familiar music that made it seem newly minted.

The slow movement famously mines two themes from the title Schubert lied. Yet there is a restless unease and subdued tragedy pulsing throughout this work, which was brought out with bracing force and dedication. The players conveyed the dirge-like essence of the Andante, each variation fully and vividly characterized. Drucker’s elegiac playing was especially fine, evoking a Biedermeier nostalgia with sweetness as well as sinew, the violinist nearly leaping off his chair in the agitato passages.

The concise Scherzo was aptly rustic with sharply pointed accents.  The performance was rounded off with a remarkable account of the finale, all four men digging into the music with extraordinary fire and ferocity, building momentum to an exhilarating coda. As the Emerson Quartet approaches its 40th anniversary season, the group clearly remains in hale artistic health.

The evening began with an equally weighty work, Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131.

Cast in seven movements played without pause, Beethoven’s late quartet pushes structure and Classical notions of balance and proportion to the breaking point to accommodate his enigmatic and singular vision.

With Philip Setzer in the first chair the Emerson members tackled the music with notable energy and cohesion, occasionally sacrificing polish (and intonation) in their mix of the earthy and elevated. The closing Allegro fared best, put across with driving urgency.

Yet considering the group’s past achievements in this repertory, this sturdy performance offered good rather than great Beethoven. The reading lacked a fine madness as well as the hair-trigger explosiveness that the music requires. There was a too-comfortable approach with the widely terraced expressive contrasts sounding generalized and ironed out. In the central Andante, the ensemble missed the otherworldly element at the nexus of Beethoven’s pathos and introspection.

The storm of applause that followed the final notes of the Schubert brought the Emersons back out for a generous encore of the Poco Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor Op. 20, no. 3. Spacious and searching, the refined and expressive performance offered some of the finest playing of the evening with especially sensitive solo moments from Watkins and violist Lawrence Dutton.

Note: Can the Ravinia Festival please amend its preconcert Martin Theater announcement? The jarring volume and trivial tone doesn’t exactly set the right atmosphere for an intimate evening of serious chamber music—especially the hoary would-be knee-slapper about controlling “an unruly child or husband,” which is even less funny after several years of repetition.

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