Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 21, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 19, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Less than a month after they announced their retirement from public performance in 2023, the Emerson String Quartet  – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins – made their35 th appearance at this venerable chamber music series. A memorable concert and rapturous audience response suggested that they’ll end their 47-year career in top form. 

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s first published string quartet, dating from 1829, when the precocious composer was a youthful but mature twenty years old. The Emerson’s tender but bracing account built from a lively “Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante” first movement, a gracious “Canzonetta: Allegretto” (including a delicately fleet mid-section), and a passionate “Andante espressivo,” to a fast and furious “Molto allegro e vivace” finale.
Next, in sharp contrast, came Bartok’s 1927 third string quartet. Reflecting both the influence of Hungarian folk music and the composer’s interest in avant-garde musical techniques, it still sounded strikingly modern in the Emerson’s tightly coiled performance. Their legendary seamless ensemble intact throughout, they brought laser clarity to the thorny first section, controlled energy to the manic second, haunting sensitivity to the eerie third, and intense focus to the frenzied closing “Coda.” 

The concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s popular 1871 first string quartet. From a gentle “Moderato e semplice” opening movement, a heartfelt “Andante cantabile” (famously arranged later by the composer for string orchestra – Drucker’s first violin solos were meltingly beautiful), and a mercurial “Scherzo,” to an exuberant folk-dance-flavored “Finale,” the Emersons played every note with exhilarating warmth. 

That quality was even clearer in the deep affection they brought to their encore (a rare occurrence at South Mountain), George Walker’s lovely 1946 “Lyric for Strings.” Setzer movingly recalled the Quartet’s happy working relationship with the noted African-American composer during the last twenty years of his life (Walker died in 2018 at age 96).
South Mountain requires proof of Covid vaccination and masking inside the hall. Chamber music lovers can still catch three more Sunday afternoon concerts here by world-class musicians (including former Emerson cellist David Finckel) through October 10.