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Date 11 January 2005 at 20.00 Venue The Vancouver Playhouse

Reviewer J. H. Stape


THE EMERSON STRING QUARTET

Mendelssohn String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 12 Joaquin Turina La oracíon del torero Joan Tower Incandescent Shostakovich String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68

Violin Eugene Drucker Violin Philip Setzer Viola Lawrence Dutton Cello David Finckel


If ever a programme seemed designed to ward off wintry blasts, the one offered by The Emerson String Quartet in the fifth concert of The Friends of Chamber Music 2004-05 season surely fits the bill. With glimpses of passionate Spain in Turina's Oracíon del torero (The Bullfighter's Prayer) and Joan Tower's appropriately named and powerful "Incandescent" warmth pervaded. For that matter, it did throughout this evening of consummately intelligent, thoroughly musical string playing.

The concert opener, Mendelssohn's "String Quartet in E flat major," was an object lesson in obtaining clarity of detail. Assured and relentlessly elegant, the quartet shifts from a mellow Adagio to a contrasting canzonetta of singular grace that requires agility of a high order. The characterful Andante was restrained and sober, but underwritten with passion, while the closing tarantella, a return to the second movement's folk elements, was bold and vigorous, engaging with the world again after the introspective Andante. Playing was razor-sharp, carefully honed, and intense, yet a light, delicious touch was pervasive. The Emerson reached for an almost orchestral sound in the quartet's closing measures.

Set at the moment just before the bullfighter enters the ring to confront Nature and Death, Joaquin Turina's brief and poignant "La oracíon del torero," wholly Spanish, plumbed the nature of thoughtful bravado and showy bravery. Brooding melancholy and wistfulness also made up the many moods of this gratifying genre piece. The emotional landscape was vividly presented with breathtaking sensitivity to nuance.

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"Incandescent," a single 18-minute movement by American composer Joan Tower, demanded a full-circle shift of mood and technique. Aggressively atonal at its opening, the piece, Tower explains, was composed to explore "heat from within." Radiantly textured, this cerebral tour de force bristles with ideas like a calculus lesson set to music in the attempt to escape referentiality. Technically daunting, the piece, dedicated to The Emerson Quartet, received a finely controlled, magisterial reading.

Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

The sweeping ambitions of Shostakovich's "String Quartet No. 2 in A major" begin with its aptly named "Overture," its ideas slowly developed and played with taut precision. By contrast, the unabashed appeal to sentiment in the second, adagio movement, increasingly intense after its chirpy opening, is a conversational laying bare of the heart, with the weight falling squarely, almost mercilessly, on the first violon. The waltz of the third movement takes refuge in traditional form, but rather than reaffirming the rightness of the social order, this is a bitterly ironic dance building to a frenzy and ultimately breaking apart the form. A vaguely Russian character enters in the fourth movement, "Theme and Variation," with again a traditional form being turned on its head. This was exciting music, still new, and was rendered by no less exciting playing.

Clearly glad to have The Emerson String Quartet back in town, the attentive and appreciative audience, was graciously offered not one but two encores: Mendelssohn's Fugue, Op. 81 (published posthumously), and an extract from Bach's Art of the Fugue. Already pushed away, winter disappeared in the afterglow as -- magical moment indeed --the music continued long after the playing had stopped.

2005 J. H. Stape


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