Friday, July 22, 2016

With perfection, the Emerson String Quartet passes the torch from Haydn to Beethoven

Photo by Tom Emerson
Mining the connections between two giants of classic music, the Emerson String Quartet delivered superb performances of late Haydn and early Beethoven quartets on Saturday, July 16th, at Kaul Auditorium. The concert, presented by Chamber Music Northwest, was the second of three in which the ensemble contrasted pieces from Haydn’s Opus 76 and Beethoven’s Opus 18. As the program notes explained, Haydn stopped writing music for string quartet after critics hailed Beethoven’s first foray, entitled Six Quartets. Scholars have speculated that Haydn may have recognized Beethoven’s genius and simply withdrew from writing in that genre. As shown by the Emerson String Quartet, Haydn did seem to experiment with more emotive turmoil in his late string quartets, and that may have been influenced by Beethoven.

Displaying terrific tonal balance, pinpoint attacks, excellent choices in tempo, and wonderfully coordinated dynamics, the Emerson String Quartet was in complete command throughout the evening. Opening with Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor (Op. 76, No. 2) (“Quinten”), the ensemble (viollinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Laurence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins) excelled in the little nuances without losing sight of the arc of the piece. They nudged notes ahead, diminuendoed and crescendo totally together, created resonant pizzicattos, added a zing or two and quick upwards glissandos for the lively finale.

With Drucker taking over the first violin role from Setzer, Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Major (Op. 18, No. 5) received an exceptional interpretation with alert, exciting playing from beginning to end. Even the Haydnesque pauses had a delightful bit of tension that made them an integral part of the piece. The variations in the third movement swayed from the refined to the rustic and the fourth was crowned with a nimble and playful attitude.

After intermission, the foursome led off with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major (Op. 18, No. 1), launching into the first movement with an incredible sense of interplay so that the person who had the leading line could always be heard. First violinist Setzer’s emotive solo in the second movement, “Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato,” was followed by spacious pauses that again seemed to acknowledge Haydn. Setzer’s execution of a blitz of notes highlighted the third movement and the ensemble wrapped it all up in the fourth con brio

The concert concluded with the ensemble (Drucker back at first violin) giving a stellar performance of Haydn’s String quartet in D Major (Op. 76, No. 5). Again the tonal balance was remarkable and always lovely. Tempos were lively and engaging – especially the galloping passages in the last movement, “Finale: Presto,” which also contained an enticing fadeaway before winding things up robustly.

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