Wigmore Mondays – Emerson String Quartet in Bartók and Brahms

emerson-quartet-2

Emerson String Quartet – Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Paul Watkins (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 16 November 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06p50ql

on the iPlayer until 16 December

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, as recorded by the Emerson String Quartet themselves:

What’s the music?

Brahms: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51/2 (1873) (32 minutes)

Bartók: String Quartet No.4 (1928) (26 minutes)

What about the music?

It is odd to think of Brahms suffering from any lack of conviction, given the consistently high quality of his output – but the shadow of Beethoven and Schubert was so long that he waited a long time before issuing any symphonies or string quartets. On the symphony front he waited until the age of 43 before publishing his first work in the form. The string quartets arrived a little earlier, the pair of works issued as Op.51 completed around his fortieth birthday.

They are extremely accomplished works, and as is the case with much of Brahms’s writing there is a lot going on in each part. Because of that it often sounds as though more than four stringed instruments are playing, and in the A minor work the Emersons perform here there is consistent melodic interest, Brahms often referring to several recurring ideas. This piece flows beautifully, and is clearly the work of an organised mind! Despite that there is clear emotion too.

The same could be said for Bartók, who achieves an incredible balance of structure in his String Quartet no.4 of 1928, while at the same time writing music of remarkable poise and power. This work is in five movements and is written like a mirror. Movements one and five are fast-ish sections carrying similar material, the instruments often working together. The second and fourth are ‘scherzos’ – fast music with a humourous side – though the humour here comes across as more devilish. The second movement is played with the mutes, while the second is wholly pizzicato (plucked). The third movement, the emotional centre, is a famous example of the composer’s night music, where a heady atmosphere is set by the other three instruments against a folk-inspired melody on the cello – which eventually transfers to violins and back.

Bartók’s Hungarian roots are very much on his sleeve here – but like Brahms he writes with his head as well as his heart, with not a note wasted.

Performance verdict

Electricity is in the air when the Emersons play Bartók, and something about the recent personnel change with Paul Watkins coming in seems to have fired the quartet afresh. It helps also that first violinist Eugene Drucker appears to be in much better health – back-wise at least – and these elements appear to have fired a new-found enthusiasm.

Watkins was a focal point in the third movement of what proved to be a stunning performance of the Bartók. When the Emersons recorded the six quartets of the Hungarian master in 1988 they laid down what for me were standard bearing feats of technical prowess. Here, at the Wigmore, they showed those were emphatically no fluke, and some of the sounds issuing from the four instruments I can genuinely say I have not heard from a string quartet before. The scratchy sound from Lawrence Dutton’s viola at the end of the second movement Scherzo, the weird, accordion-like chords halfway through the third – both were eyeopening moments.

The Brahms was inevitably a more sober performance but here too there was characterisation and much warmth, especially in the fast part of the scherzo and in the finale. Some of the composer’s quartet writing is extremely busy in this quartet, but under the Emersons we got clarity if perhaps an over-rich sound at times in the slow movement.

What should I listen out for?

Brahms

1:53 – the quartet begins with a smooth theme but with a certain amount of anxiety too. There are a lot of different melodic threads here but Brahms keeps them closely united. A lilting theme at 3:16 is a little more relaxed, but still with a lot of nervous energy going on elsewhere. When this theme comes back, at 8:05, the mood is a little sunnier – but elsewhere the anxiety seems to remain.

12:09 – the slow movement of the quartet, marked Andante moderato (which means ‘moderately, at a walking pace). This has a lyrical feel to it, and is given in a tender mood. Again Brahms works very smoothly, with little to no join between the different sections. The key of A major (as opposed to the overall key of the work, A minor) presents a much sunnier outlook too.

21:54 – a movement marked as a Minuet, which seems to acknowledge the historical use of this dance in the string quartet by Haydn and Mozart. Yet this is classic Brahms, with a slight syncopation running through the tunes and an elegance to the quartet writing. At 23:33 the mood changes with a much faster ‘trio’ section, the main material returning again at 24:51.

27:18 – a forceful tune begins this movement from the first violin, and is then taken up on the viola. A sweeter second theme then makes itself known at 28:07, but the work ends forcefully – almost defiantly – at 34:06.

Bartók

36:31 – Immediately the power of this work is set loose as the four instruments play closely together. There are jarring dissonances but also bittersweet folk melodies, passed between the instruments. Bartók often pairs the instruments in melody, as he does with the first violin and cello at 38:59. Then he explores contrasts between loud, jarring statements and really quiet answers, until a bruising passage brings the movement to an end at 42:33.

43:06 – the second movement is marked Prestissimo, con sordino­ – which means ‘very fast, with the mute’ – the small contraption each string player fits over their bridge to dull the sound. It gives an eerie effect, especially with the writing Bartók uses here, where the instruments sound like moths circling around a flame. The effect is that of night-time music – as it is also for the following:

46:50 – Bartók gets some really striking sonorities in his writing for strings here, with some held chords from the three upper instruments before a soliloquy from the cello at 47:11. The atmosphere is heady, and to get the most effect you are advised to listen in a quiet room or on headphones! Further solos from the violin follow, and the music becomes more animated, before the cello takes over again at 50:54.

52:59 – the fourth movement, a mirror of the second – only this time the instruments are required to use pizzicato – which is plucking the string. Sometimes Bartók asks them to twang against the fingerboard, which produces a snappy sound (53:45 for example). Even here there are striking melodies.

56:26 – a savage Hungarian dance begins, in a similar profile to the first movement, all players close together in range. The power of the unison playing is something to behold, especially as a lot of the time the players have been using double stopping (more than one string at a time). The frequent use of open strings leads to a coarse sound. The finish at 1:01:56 is particularly emphatic.

Encore

As an encore, not on the radio, the Emersons gave the Cypress No.3, a song by Dvořák which he arranged for string quartet. It is a beautifully warm piece of music.

Further listening

The Emersons’ Bartók recordings of 1988 were a landmark for the quartet, and it is well worth revisiting them. All six quartets are superbly performed, though one recommendation on its own would be the String Quartet no.2 – whose second movement Scherzo (the second track on Disc 2) has incredible forward drive.

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