Thursday, July 17, 2014

Emerson String Quartet with cellist Paul Watkins as brilliant as ever in Chamber Music Northwest concert

Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovich
Death might have been the subject matter of the program on Saturday night (July 12) at Kaul Auditorium, but the Emerson Quartet was as alive and thrilling as ever. The foursome, newly re-constituted with cellist Paul Watkins, dug into two pieces: Shostakovich’s gravely serious String Quartet No. 15 and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, which carries the moniker “Death and the Maiden,” and delivered incisive performances that made the standing room only audience forget about the hot weather outside.

Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No. 15 just a year before he died in August of 1975, and its primarily slow and solemn qualities (six Adagios) can be, well, deadening if played without intensity. The Emersons not only played with conviction and technical accuracy, but they also carried the dead-weight of the music’s emotion without sinking. Right off the top, the quartet created a colorless and tired sound that evoked sorrow and lamentation. It was as if Shostakovich were telling us that he was worn out. Faint strains of Russian hymns drifted about. Extended sections that featured only two players at a time sounded intriguingly austere and warm at the same time. The violent zings of the second movement seemed to puncture the atmosphere. The brief and wild excursions by violinist Philip Setzer in the third erupted out of nowhere. Later came a lovely cantabile segment that was led by violist Lawrence Dutton while violinist Eugene Drucker and cellist Watkins supported him with gracious, complimentary lines. As the piece progressed, the ends and beginnings of phrases and pauses took on more and more significance. Semi-tonal trills erupted now and then as if the soul was trying to escape. The last few measures diminuendoed into prayerful silence, bringing to a close a wandering, meditative journey that seemed unresolved with more questions than answers.

Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, one of the most beloved in the repertoire, was composed in 1824, just four years before he died at the age of 31. The piece acquired the nickname “Death and the Maiden” because part of the theme in the second movement (“Andante con moto”) was taken from a song of the same name that Schubert had written several years earlier. The serious nature of the music reflects the depression and health issues that he began to experience after having been diagnosed with syphilis a couple years earlier.

The Emerson String Quartet boldly launched into the Schuert, playing the opening salvos with precision and panache. The music was heightened with terrific dynamics that included sweeping fortes, hushed pianissimos, and organic tempo changes. Phrases were seamlessly traded from one musician to the next and the balance was outstanding. First violinist Setzer created a singing, sweet tone during the second movement and the many pizzicato notes seemed to bubble up effortlessly from Watkins’ cello. The uptempo and crescendo into the finale of the swirling tarantella-like last movement gave the piece a riveting conclusion. The audience responded with a loud standing ovation that should have gone on longer than it did.

Watkins played every bit as well as the man he replaced, David Finckel, who retired from the ensemble last year. Eye contact, listening, and virtuosic playing - you name it -Watkins seemed to fit into the group as if he had been playing with them for the last twenty years. If you would like to read an excellent interview with Watkins, I recommend this article in Oregon Arts Watch. I also suggest that you catch the Emerson String Quartet the next time they return to Portland. It’s an amazing ensemble.
Emerson String Quartet playing Schubert

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