One of the very great string quartets: the Emerson

By Philippa Kiraly

We are so fortunate that the Emerson String Quartets, arguably among the greatest of string quartets since recordings began, comes regularly to perform at Meany Hall.

It was here Wednesday night with a program which, on the face of it, might have suggested to unadventurous audience members that they skip this one. Not a bit of it. The hall was virtually full of people maintaining an unusual hushed attention throughout the performance including between movements, of Charles Ives’ Quartet No. 1, “The Revival Meeting;” Lawrence Dillon’s String Quartet No. 5, “Through the Night,” commissioned by the Emerson and completed last year; Barber’s famous “Adagio” in its original version, a movement from his String Quartet No.1; and Dvorak’s charming Quartet No. 12, “American.”

Melody tied the program together. Ives and Dillon took well-known hymns and an equally well known Welsh lullaby as themes for these works. While quite recognizable, both composers deconstruct them so that they are heard as though a distorting ear, or as Picasso might have drawn them. Dvorak is always a consummate melodist, and Barber’s stately Adagio is hummable as well—should you have enough breath.

On hearing the Emerson for the first time in a couple of years, the tone quality strikes the listener. All four musicians—Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello—play with exactly the same type of musical depth to their sound, the same honeyed warmth and firmness. Apart from range it can be hard to know without looking where one instrument stops and another takes over.

Their bow control is superb. Once, at the end of the third work on the program, the Barber, I heard a small scratch, and realized there had not been a single scratchy or rasping start to a note even once until then. Later, in a movement from Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3 which they played for encore, many musicians would consider some scratching to be justified, as emphasis. But the Emerson had plenty of emphasis and strongly dug notes, without a single rasp.

Its maturity and musical stature has nothing to do with technique or flash. The technique is there, of course, but it’s what the four do with with the musical material they present to us that sets the group apart, the elucidation of what the composer was after shown to us so we can hear and understand it too.

The Ives, written while he was still a student, already has the composer’s hallmark harmonic imagination, particularly enlightening to hear in juxtaposition to Dillon’s work written 110 years later, with the same harmonic adventurousness and yet completely contemporary today.

Dillon, 50, is composer-in-residence at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the recipient of increasing numbers of commissions from interested orchestras and professional chamber groups. His quartet, “Through the Night,” explores variations in its four movements and classical format, all based on the Welsh lullaby “All Through the Night.” However, each movement is preceded by either a short Dream-prelude or a similar but unnamed otherworldly episode, using the highest and lowest possible tones, fluttering and trembly, like insects at dusk. It’s close to 40 minutes of considerable variety, including one sensuous variation which surely owed distant homage to tango, but it all hangs together like a colorful, well designed quilt.

The six minutes of the reflective Barber made just the right transition to the unabashedly romantic Dvorak, where the Emerson brought out rhythms, verve and colors as freshly as though new minted.

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