Emerson Quartet appears on CMF’s Mann Chamber Music Series

Program of Purcell, Walker, Shostakovich and Beethoven, plus Dvořák

By Peter Alexander July 14 at 12:50 a.m.

Last night (July 13) the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) hosted one of the most distinguished string quartets as part of the new Robert Mann Chamber Music series.

It was not, however, the quartet that had been announced. The originally listed Juilliard Quartet was unable to make the trip, and the nine-time Grammy-winning Emerson Quartet came to the rescue, making their CMF debut appearance. That was a happy turn of events, as the Emerson gave a terrific program of their own, entirely worthy of a series named for the legendary violinist.

Emerson Quartet. Photo by Jurgen Frank.

The Emerson Quartet opened their program with Henry Purcell’s 17th-centruy Chacony, as edited by Benjamin Britten. This is a curious hybrid piece, one that is neither Baroque nor modern—more of a Baroco-Romantic blend. The performance was lovely, transparent enough to clarify the polyphonic texture but also warm enough to evoke a more Romantic sense of style.

After that brief opener, violinist Eugene Drucker came onstage to talk about the program, providing just enough analysis to give insight into the coming pieces. As he pointed out, the Purcell/Britten established a theme that was carried on by other pieces: music that looks both forward and backward. This applied particularly to the Shostakovich Quartet No. 14, in which the composer pulled serial elements into his personal style, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, op. 132, which uses an old church mode to express the composer’s thanks to the Deity.

But first the Emerson played the string quartet version of George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Best known as a piece for string orchestra, it was originally written as part of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1. If you are accustomed to the string orchestra version, it sounds more fragile, and also more intimate when played by a quartet. In the Emerson’s performance, you could hear the players’ affection for this gentle piece, as they caressed the chords and carefully shaped the dynamic contours.

As Drucker explained, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Quartet is permeated with highly chromatic lines that come out of 12-tone compositional styles. And yet, it is unmistakably Shostakovich’s music in its texture, in its rhythmic shape, and equally in its expressive profile.

Like many of his other quartet movements, the opening Allegretto starts as if striking out on a brisk excursion. But soon the chromatic elements  take the music down some strange and unexpected byways. Happily, the Emerson Quartet seemed completely plugged into the composer’s itinerary and never seemed the least bit lost.

The second movement is an Adagio of brooding intensity. Last night the suppressed turmoil of the music seemed to summon the winds outside the Chautauqua Auditorium. This mini mistral rattled the building and seemed to express what Shostakovich had hidden behind the notes, but it did not rattle the players of the Emerson Quartet who carried on with total aplomb.

The final movement is variegated in texture, mood and affect, contrasts that the Emerson Quartet brought out forcibly. Undisturbed by the continuing tempest without, they maintained their focus and intensity. 

I have little to say about the Beethoven, which received a consistent, polished and utterly coherent performance. This is music that the Emerson, like all first-rank quartets, has played many times. They are performers who know the music intimately and know exactly what they want to do. This performance did not confront the audience with the rude and boisterous Beethoven we sometimes hear. Rather, it had the rough edges polished, and however deeply expressive, it was never uncomfortable.

Hearing this quartet is almost an otherworldly experience, especially the central movement titled “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit” (Holy song of thanks of a convalescent to the Deity). Here Beethoven uses the Lydian mode, a kind of scale used in Medieval Gregorian chant but rarely since, to evoke the sacred realms. The Emerson Quartet played those portions of the score with quiet reverence, and contrasted them well with the surrounding material representing his recovery.

These essential contrasts were brought out in a polished way without resorting to crude exaggeration. Was it too polished? Some may like Beethoven in a more aggressive mood, but you could not say this performance was not convincing. 

For an encore, the quartet played one of Dvořák’s Cypresses, quartet arrangements of a set of love songs, a lovely and gentle way to follow up a widely varied program.