It does not seem 30 years since the Emerson String Quartet appeared on the scene. To mark their anniversary, the Quartet have devised a series focusing on Beethoven for Carnegie Hall (how many other quartets could fill New York’s prime symphony orchestra venue?) and Kaija Saariaho has composed them a new work for the occasion.
Although it is impressive that a chamber group can draw such audiences in their home country, I am glad that they choose to perform at the Wigmore Hall when they are in London. Listening recently to their recordings of Mozart and Bartók had put in mind a stringent sound, but in the Wigmore’s generous acoustics the four players sounded more alluring, the resonance of viola and cello providing a deep anchor of sonority.
The two violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alternate in the first chair position, which is symbolic of a quartet made up of four very equal members. Like one of the great American orchestras, say the Chicago Symphony, the Emersons have strength in depth. Every line of the quartet writing is equally muscular and determined. There is a loss of European grace, but the gain comes in forthright, strong-minded playing.
The two recitals they gave at the Wigmore comprised the late Beethoven quartets. For the past four or five years the Emersons have played standing up, and while that might not be the easy option when facing two works as physically and mentally exhausting as Beethoven’s Op.132 and Op.130, nobody could say there was any sign of flagging concentration.
In Op.132, the quick exchanges in the second movement, like an ace tennis rally, were perfectly etched, and the final Allegro appassionato never lost sight of its goal. The faster movements of Op.130 were urgently argued, even if the very cleanliness of the rhythmic attack sometimes became tiring, and its cavatina was sung with poise and intensity. To end, the great struggle of the Grosse Fuge gave us the Emersons at their finest, still youthfully untiring, but with 30 years of chamber music experience behind them.
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