Monday, July 10, 2017

Emerson Quartet delivers triumphant Shostakovich and Beethoven at CMNW

The Emerson String Quartet
Photo by Lisa Mazzucco
Sunday, July 9 at the PSU's Lincoln Performance Hall saw the world-renowned Emerson Quartet present a spectacular and varied concert featuring works by Purcell, Beethoven and Shostakovich. This year's artists-in-residence for Chamber Music Northwest, the Emerson Quartet (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins, Lawrence Dutton, viola, and Paul Watkins, cello) showed once again why they are among the best of the best, and how fortunate CMNW is to have such a prestigious ensemble as
artists-in-residence for an entire year.

Opening each half were two short fantasias by Henry Purcell, No. 8 in D Minor, Z. 739 to start the concert, and No. 11 in G Major, Z. 742 in the second half. Originally written for viols, in the first fantasia the group presented a fascinating study in timbre, as the group played with an extremely light and delicate bow such that at times, with one's eyes closed it was easy to imagine listening to a chest of viols. The G Major contained wistful, dreamy baroque melodies, and both were over almost as soon as they began.

Shostakovich's famous String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110, provided the meat of the first half. In this piece there is so much 'air,' compared to a structurally denser work such as the Beethoven, and the Emerson Quartet used this to spectacular effect. The early threnody by the first violin over a long, sustained chord from the other instruments was a great example of this: subdued, yet full of color. This tribute to the victims of war gave the impression of a nameless ghost from a nameless atrocity, one among millions, wandering, lost.  The ferocity of the attaca into the Allegro Molto was terrifying, transforming into a ceaseless energico, the main theme bandied back and forth with each performer offering something new. An almost gay dance of the dead gave way to a sadness beyond tears, a bone weary exhaustion, like death by slow heartbreak. The brief cloud break late in the work was surrounded again by a thunder that was never far off.

Beethoven's titanic String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 provided a distinct contrast from the Shostakovich, and displayed the depth that the Emerson is known for. Keen insight and judicious restraint, accompanied by downright explosive oubursts, yielded incredible passion. As a listener, to almost forget that music is being played, and is not something that simply exists in and of itself is an incredible experience. The Emerson quartet forged such a tight synchronization that at times it felt like one instrument. There were many great moments, from the sublime melody by the first violinist in the Allegro Moderato to a comical molto pizzicato that had the audience giggling, to snatches of melody from the viola that cried out ferociously and then as suddenly subsided. As the work progressed they somehow kept eliciting more and more and more sound, yet with no loss of quality, and still even the most whispering pianissimo was as rich in timbre as anything. During the galloping Presto the rapidity of the dynamic shifts and coordination of the infinitesimally delicate filigree was absolutely stunning. The Emerson Quartet's incredible range of timbres, colors, emotions and technique was put to the full test in this ambitious program, and no one in the audience was left wanting for anything.

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