Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An Evening with the Emersons

It is always wonderful to have the Emerson String Quartet performing in our city, as they did last night in a performance of quartets by Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven.

I was most curious because the distinguished quartet had, since May of 2013, a new cellist joining their ranks. From what I could hear and see last night, Paul Watkins has already become an integral member of the ensemble, adding his own distinctive sound to the voice of the quartet.

Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428, was written at the height of the composer’s powers. This was one of the six so-called “Haydn quartets”, because Mozart had sent these quartets to the older composer, telling Haydn that they were “the fruits of long and laborious endeavor.” With its opening E-flat octave leap setting the tonality of the work, Mozart frames the three chromatic measures that follow it. According to Charles Rosen, the lower and higher E-flats of the octave, being lower and higher than any of the notes that follow, “imply the resolution of all dissonance within an E flat context” and define the tonal space, with the resolution of the dissonances tracing the fundamental tonic triad of E-flat Major. It was a masterful way of establishing tonality.

From this incredible opening of the quartet, through to the impish and humorous final movement, the Emerson’s brought out all the elegance and zest of the work with the characteristic sound. Time and time again throughout the evening, I was struck by how the individual members of the quartet, each with their own characteristic sound, were able to merge with one another and produce a sound that is larger than the voices of each of the four instruments, the sound of, for lack of a better word, a string quartet as a organic entity.

More than any other 20th century composers, including even Shostakovich, Bartok’s six string quartets significantly extend both the form of the genre as well as the sound that a quartet is capable of producing. The Quartet No. 6, Sz 114, is one of the bleakest pieces of music I have ever heard. Every one of the four movements includes the word “Mesto” (meaning dejected, gloomy, mournful, or sad). The opening of the 1st movement, with its sorrowful theme, reminds me very much of the opening of the composer’s landmark Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The sound of the four movements goes from utter dejection and sorrow to savage brutality – there is no sunshine at the end of this work. The members of the Emerson String Quartet served as our guides through the shifting moods and sounds of this great work, and shared with us a performance that was simply stunning. At the end of the performance, the audience rewarded the ensemble not with a burst of applause, but with stunned silence – an unusual occurrence in this city – and a sure sign that the audience was touched by this music.

After the interval came a performance of the very family F Major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1, of Beethoven. Listening to this all-too-familiar work after the Bartok, I could not help but think what a forward-looking piece of music this must have been for the audience of Beethoven’s time, with its huge canvas, as well as the exploitation of the instruments to the limits of their range and capabilities. In fact, Beethoven said to a musician of the time, that this music was not meant for his time, “but for a later age.”

The ensemble, the timing, and the pacing of the quartet were remarkable throughout the performance of this long and complex work. Again, I was struck by the uniformity of the musicians’ concept of the work and sound, and how the music sounded and felt like it was being played by a ├╝ber-instrument of enormous range, and not by four individual instrumentalists.

Friends who have been long time patrons of the Friends of Chamber Music in Vancouver told me that years ago, there was a waiting list for buying tickets to these concerts. The many empty seats in the auditorium, even for a distinguished ensemble like the Emersons, reminded me how times have changed. My friend said, “If you can’t fill the hall with the Emersons. There is no hope.” With the large number of young people studying music in this city, surely a connection can be made with the local music schools and teachers, in order to begin to cultivate a new audience for chamber music, this purest and most democratic form of music making.

Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music is now celebrating its 66th season. I hope that they will continue to bring us groups like the Emersons for many more years to come.

It is up to us, the audience, to keep this very worthwhile organization alive.

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