Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 15, 2019

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

All the ingredients for chamber music heaven came together in this concert: arguably the finest string quartet now before the public; three cornerstones of the string quartet repertoire over three centuries; and ideal acoustics in a storied venue.

Formed in 1976 and named after American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, three of the quartet’s founders are still members: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate first and second chairs, and violist Lawrence Dutton. In 2013 founding cellist David Finckel was succeeded by Paul Watkins, to whom the program notes attribute “a profound effect” on the ensemble, infusing it “with a warm, rich tone and a palpable joy in the collaborative process.”

The concert opened with first violinist Setzer leading a relaxed performance of Mozart’s late (1789) Quartet in D Major, K. 575. An arrestingly gentle opening “Allegretto” set the stage for a lyrical “Andante,” a lively “Menuetto” and trio, and a serene “Allegretto” finale. The Emersons’ trademark technical precision was enhanced by a sweet and singing sound.

Moving ahead to a century later (1878), the program’s first half ended with a glowing account of Dvorak’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51 with Drucker as first violinist. A sunny opening “Allegro ma non troppo” precedes a melancholy “Dumka,” or Slavic lament, a graceful “Romanza,” and a rousing “Allegro assai” finale, partly in the rhythm of a fast Czech dance called the skocna. The players captured the full range of the quartet’s shifting moods with unerring accuracy.

Intermission was followed by a gripping rendition, with Setzer back in the first violin chair, of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 5, in B-flat Major, Op. 92. Though written in 1951, it was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953. Selzer asked the audience to imagine the quartet’s effect on its first listeners, after a period when Shostakovich and other Soviet artists were routinely persecuted for their work. The Emersons played the three continuous movements – an earthy “Allegro,” a haunting “Andante,” and a stark “Moderato” – with eerie intensity.

The first season in the second century of this iconic chamber music series founded in 1918 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge could not have ended on a higher note.