The Emerson Quartet has been one of the world’s renowned chamber ensembles for some forty years. Aurally, it established itself from the beginning with a hard, driving performance style that refreshed classics grown staid with the years, and gave a prominent hearing to newer works. Visually, it has been distinctive too since 2002 for playing stand-up in the style of pop and rock musicians, with only the cellist seated as a concession to the dimensions of the instrument.
The Emerson’s violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and their violist, Lawrence Dutton, still play on their feet, and they are still exceptionally fine musicians. But groups that challenge need challenge themselves, and the addition in 2013 of a new cellist, Peter Watkins, has given the Emerson a new focus. Watkins is of a generation if not quite an age with his colleagues, but his performance demeanor is strikingly different. Drucker, Setzer, and Dutton play poker-faced, even if their art is deeply expressive, but Watkins, whose chair on a riser is the visual focus of the group, makes music with a continual play of emotion on his features, and he’s become the focus of the Emerson’s renewed energies too.
The Emerson’s recital in this year’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society series offered no new works, but a couple of relative rarities. Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet, the Op. 95, which has always been an outlier in the cycle of his quartets, opened the program. The First and Second Rasumovsky Quartets, composed four years before, were revolutionary works that redefined not only their own genre but, with the Eroica Symphony and the Kreutzer and Appassionata sonatas, the expressive potential and intellectual penetration of music in general. The Serioso—a title given to the Op.95 by Beethoven himself—isn’t grandly ambitious in the way of these earlier works, but in its compression of materials and concentration of form it also chalked a new road to the future. If it has a parallel among Beethoven’s other compositions, it’s with the Fifth Symphony, a work of similar tautness and unity of mood.
The Emerson played the Beethoven more for refinement than force, although with no lack of conviction. A similar sense of mellowness pervaded its reading of Shostakovich’s Fourth Quartet. Shostakovich is the only great composer to have spent his entire career under a totalitarian regime, which meant, among other things, that political drama of one sort or another surrounded most of his major compositions. The Fourth Quartet is very much a case in point. Shostakovich turned to chamber music in the period 1948-52 following the renewed and more sweeping attacks on musical “formalism” that had singled him out specifically in 1936, hoping that works in this medium would be less likely to attract official attention. Nonetheless, the Fourth Quartet was consigned if not written for the drawer, being performed publicly along with its immediate successor only after Stalin’s death.
The decision not to expose the Fourth Quartet was a prudent one. The new attack on formalism was part of a broader purge in the arts and sciences that, culminating in the so-called “Doctor’s Plot,” specifically targeted Jewish artists and intellectuals. Shostakovich had numerous Jewish colleagues and students, and a deep interest in Hebraic music that had been evidenced in his Second Piano Trio as well as his Op. 79 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry. The Fourth Quartet is suffused with the sounds and inflections of Jewish klezmer music, and Shostakovich’s personal identification with Jewish suffering as a whole is evident throughout. As such, it remains an immensely courageous as well as a deeply humane work, laid aside as a testimonial to be heard in a less dark time.
The Emerson’s own violinists are Jewish musicians, and its performance of the Fourth Quartet emphasized its klezmer tonalities in a restrained but deeply inward and penetrating way. This is music that can be played more robustly too, and at one time the Emerson would likely have opted for such an approach, but I for one would not have missed the maturity of its conception now.
The older Emerson sound, full and bold, returned with the work that concluded the concert, Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet. The relative neglect of this rich and ambitious score, which with the Piano Trio in A Minor and the String Sextet makes one of the triad of Tchaikovsky’s greatest chamber compositions, is hard to account for. It’s also a work that, with its two predecessors in the genre, is the foundation of the Russian string quartet tradition. Brahms, whose own quartets date from the same period, was building on the Austro-German heritage of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, but Tchaikovsky, though he obviously had these models before him, was building from scratch among his compatriots. The Third Quartet stands beside anything in the literature that precedes it, brilliantly exploiting the possibilities of string writing and offering dark sonorities of almost symphonic texture and density. The most magical moment in the Emerson’s performance, though, was in the rising, celestial chords with which the Andante funèbre concludes. The Emerson is still making music at its best.
The Emerson Quartet, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, December 9, 2016. At the Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95. Dimitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 4, Op. 83. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor, Op. 30.