Sunday, July 19, 2015

Emerson String Quartet delivers Mozart and Ravel in Chamber Music Northwest concert

Emerson String Quartet with Paul Neubauer | Photo by Tom Emerson
A lot of excitement was in the air on Saturday, July 11th, at Chamber Music Northwest. The vaunted Emerson String Quartet was about to enter and play before a sold out crowd at Kaul Auditorium, which, according to Reed College seats 760. Winners of numerous accolades, including nine Grammys, three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year,” the Emerson String Quartet has earned a big fan base in Portland and drew an SRO audience for its performance on the following evening as well.

For the first half of its concert, the Emerson String Quartet played two Mozart works, leading off with the String Quartet No. 14 in G Major (K. 387) and finishing with the String Quintet in E-flat Major for Viola and String Quartet (K. 614). The String Quartet No 14 (aka the “Spring” quartet) was one of Mozart’s early quartets and part of a group of six that he dedicated Haydn.

Because he may have wanted to impress Papa Haydn, Mozart, who was only 26 when he wrote the Spring quartet, threw in some inventive ideas. The most memorable of these was the accenting of notes on the off-beat during a climbing phrase (played wonderfully by violinist Philip Setzer) in the second movement. That surely would’ve tickled Haydn who was noted for injecting humor into some of his works. The Emerson String Quartet delved into the many nuances of the piece, feathering diminuendos the end of phrases, maintaining a terrific balance of sound while letting the leading voice come through, and creating a sprightly and fun ending.

The only odd thing that happened was that they had to retune before beginning the second movement. This may have been due to the capacity audience, which can affect the temperature of the hall even with the air conditioning running at full blast. They had apparently tuned their instruments before coming out to play.

Violist Paul Neubauer joined the Emerson String Quartet to play Mozart’s String Quintet in E-flat Major (K. 614), which was the last chamber music that Mozart wrote. He finished it eight months before he died in 1791. Violinist Eugene Drucker led the ensemble with nimble playing, making all of the fast runs and trills sound like the easiest think in the world. Robust hunting horn sounds from the violas (Lawrence Dutton and Neubauer), the dance-like tunes, the poignant pauses, and the galloping finale were played with panache. Overall, the lovely voice of Paul Watkins’s cello didn’t come through strongly enough.

The second half of the program featured Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, which took the audience on a different music journey. Played brilliantly by the Emerson String Quartet, the piece (written in 1903) established an entirely different atmosphere right away. The first movement established wonderfully eerie, enchanted, nighttime music. The second continued the mood with a bit more of an edgy sound. The third created a slow, lyrical, and melancholic feeling before ending at an ethereal precipice. The fourth went wild with evocative jagged lines that seemed to dash off in different directions. It was a sensuous and inspired performance, and the electrifying end of the journey brought the audience to its feet, sending the Emerson String Quartet out into the night with thunderous applause.

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