Emerson Quartet tests convention

Tuesday September 25, 2012

PITTSFIELD - For its annual return to South Mountain Sunday afternoon, the Emerson String Quartet took to the road with three composers.

The program tracked Dvorak to the United States, Bartok through the Hungarian countryside and the sometimes gloomy Tchaikovsky to the sunny clime of Florence.

Itinerant Slavic composers, all - but anyone looking for a further link among them would have looked in vain.

The differences were heightened by differences in performance. The Emerson is sovereign in its field, and showed it in the first half of the program, consisting of Dvorak's "American" Quartet (Opus 96) and Bartok's Quartet No. 3.

In Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" after intermission, however, the players turned a scorching Italian sun onto music that gives off a warm glow.

The concert began the group's final season with David Finckel as cellist. After 34 years, he'll leave next year to pursue other chamber music ventures, including his duo collaboration with his wife, pianist Wu Han.

Perhaps the players were out to try new ideas before their veteran cellist leaves. At any rate, the Dvorak and Tchaikovsky performances displayed unconventional touches - but in opposite directions.

Dvorak's quartet, composed in 1892 while the Czech composer was teaching and visiting in America, was cleansed of its usual lush textures. A lean tone and sense of reserve brought out many of the music's fine points without scanting its energy and nostalgia. The lento movement's homesickness was rendered as a sigh rather than sob.

Violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr joined the foursome for Tchaikovsky's sextet, a product of the Russian's 1890 visit to Florence. In deference to their partners, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton, who usually stand, sat to perform.

Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir" is mellow music, reminiscent of his Serenade for Strings (and sometimes played by string orchestras). The playing had energy aplenty. The supercharged performance, however, suffered from a sometimes strident sound, and the gaiety came across as forced.

We fast-forward now to Bartok's third quartet (of six).

Though composed in 1927 amid Bartok's travels to collect Hungarian and Romanian folk music, the tortured 15minute piece seems to come out of Europe under the Nazis, who later forced the Hungarian to emigrate to the United States.

The Emerson, which has recorded the complete Bartok set, produced a harrowing immersion. The listener didn't pause to think of the complexities. The brooding themes and dissonances, the eerie slides and pizzicatos, added up to tragedy coming out a love of life in all its complexity.

The program was dedicated to the memory of Irwin Shainman, a retired Williams College professor who served as a South Mountain board member for 34 years and president for 17 of those years. He died on July 8 at 91.


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