Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 14, 2014

Emerson String Quartet

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 10, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

The Emerson String Quartet is one of the most durable ensembles on today’s classical music scene. Three of its founders in 1976 are still members, and their only personnel change occurred in 2013, when cellist Paul Watkins succeeded original cellist David Finckel.

The “new” Emersons made an impressive Tanglewood debut last summer, and their return visit to Ozawa Hall this year featured an extended program of Shostakovich’s last five string quartets. The original Emersons recorded all fifteen of the composer’s quartets to wide acclaim in 2006, and in recent years the ensemble has made a specialty of presenting the last five together, which, like Beethoven’s late quartets, are more inward and even mystical than their predecessors.

These quartets were all written between 1966 and 1974, a year before Shostakovich died. Though much of their music is loose in form and quiet in tone, the fifteenth stands apart as the composer’s longest, most rarefied and startling quartet. Its six movements are all marked “Adagio” and played without pause, ending the concert on an eerie note that was also exhilarating in its focus and intensity. 

It’s hard to imagine a more riveting performance of this demanding music. From the echoes of Russian folksong in the eleventh quartet, the grief and anger of the twelfth, the knocking sound of the bows’ wood striking their instruments in the thirteenth, the romantic mood of the fourteenth, through the dark, death-haunted fifteenth, the musicians never wavered in their technical precision and interpretive depth.

Their versatility was reinforced as violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer swapped first chair duties and cellist Watkins and violist Lawrence Dutton outdid each other in the variety of tonal shadings they coaxed from their respective strings. 

With two intermissions (after the twelfth and fourteenth quartets), the three-hour program was an immersive experience for performers and listeners alike. Few members of the rapt audience left at either intermission, and those who completed this profound journey with the Emersons gave them multiple and well-earned standing ovations after the hushed close of the fifteenth quartet had faded into the night.