Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 15, 2013

Emerson String Quartet

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 14, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

The 2013 appearance of favorite Tanglewood guest artists the Emerson String Quartet featured a notable debut by their new Welsh-born cellist, Paul Watkins, who succeeded David Finckel in that role several months ago. Finckel had been the Emerson’s cellist since 1979, and the other players are all original members of the group, which was formed in 1976: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and violist Lawrence Dutton.

They presented classic quartets from three centuries, opening with Haydn’s 1772 Quartet No. 26, Opus 20/3. From the spirited first movement, through the stately Minuetto, tender slow movement, and whirlwind finale, the legendary technical precision, transparency of texture, and interpretive acumen of this ensemble were abundantly clear. This rendition sounded lighter, more graceful, indeed, more aptly classical than the Emerson’s 2001 Haydn quartet recordings.

The centerpiece of the program was Britten’s Quartet No. 3, played as part of Tanglewood’s celebration of that composer’s centennial this year. Written the year before he died in 1976, the first four movements of this piece prepare for the culminating slow finale, a “Recitative and Passacaglia” subtitled “La Serenissima” because it quotes themes from Britten’s final opera, “Death in Venice.” The Emerson performance was deeply felt, capturing all the angst of the two short fast movements and the poignancy of the moving finale.  

Intermission was followed by a thrilling account of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 7, Opus 59/1, the first of his three “Razumovsky” quartets, named for the Russian ambassador in Vienna who commissioned them in 1806. Just as Britten had sounded more classic after Haydn, Beethoven sounded more modern after Britten. This performance was more expansive and relaxed, and several minutes longer, than that in the Emerson’s 1997 recording of Beethoven’s complete quartets.  But it was even more dramatic for the greater contrasts, especially between the ravishing Adagio and the lively finale, which features a Russian theme in Razumovsky’s honor.

The large audience was rewarded with an encore of the six-minute finale from the third Razumovsky quartet, which the Emersons played with all the excitement required by its relentless “Allego molto” tempo and by the crowd’s enthusiasm.