Friends of Chamber Music
The Emerson String Quartet

Date and Venue 6 March, 2011, 3pm Matinee | Vancouver Playhouse Theatre

Programme Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Quartet in C major, K 465 “Dissonance”; Béla Bartók's Quartet No. 6; Felix Mendelssohn's Quartet in E flat major, Opus 44, No. 3

Reviewer David Powell

The Emerson began their concert with Mozart's 'Dissonance' quartet, one of the six quartets that Mozart wrote for no other reason than to pay hommage to Haydn. The piece gets its name from the Adagio introduction, in which Mozart used some highly unusual harmonic progressions and combinations of notes that looked well forward into the next century. It was criticized at the time for its 'mistakes', and apparently some performers in Italy even returned their copies to the publisher for corrections! Today we hear it as a hauntingly beautiful gateway into a joyful and exuberant quartet. The Emerson's approach to the music is alway very imaginative and full of vitality, even at times adopting a more romantic and passionate style than one would expect in a rendition of a Mozart quartet. For example they use a lot of rubato (speeding up here, slowing down there), and like to use large contrasts in dynamics. When they want to they can produce a huge sound.

This group has always struck me as very open to experimentation. For example, I've not seen on stage another quartet where the two violinists and viola player stand throughout (the cellist is sitting on a podium to bring him a little closer in height to the others), and the two violinists trade 1st and 2nd violin spots. Another interesting feature of their playing is that they allow the inner voices - the 2nd violin and viola parts - to play out perhaps more than other groups. I particularly often notice the viola line shining through. Although this can very occasionally be jarring, overall this technique gives their renditions great richness of texture, and of course you hear things that you don't hear when other groups are playing the same piece.

The reading of the Mendelssohn offered further evidence of this group's willingness to innovate. I have a recording of this group playing this piece and have listened to it several times. On Sunday however, rather than staying with a tried and tested interpretation, we heard a fresh conception of the piece. For example, Mendelssohn's quartets and trios often feature a light, rapid, and virtuosic Scherzo. Normally groups will play these movements as fast as they can, which can make them sound frivolous, but yesterday the Emerson took the Scherzo and slowed it down quite a bit. Far from being dull, they transformed into something unusual and intriguing. It had some depth to it that the traditional fast reading passes over.

I love this quartet, the first movement in particular. I love the way the barely-noticed codetta theme that wanders innocently and briefly onto the stage at the end of the exposition ends up taking over the development section and forms the passionate climax of the piece in the coda.

The concert ended with an abrupt change of mood with Bartok's sorrowful 6th quartet, which was 'inspired' by a depression brought on by the rise of fascism and his mother's illness. The mood is sombre throughout, and some of the music reminds me of Shostakovich, although in the depiction of musical despair, I don't think that Bartok can hold a candle to Shostakovich. I wasn't particularly pleased to hear the Bartok. It made me feel sad without lifting me up at the same time, something which Shostakovich's music miraculously manages to do.

The order the Emerson chose to perform these pieces was interesting. I imagine many quartets would have put the difficult Bartok in the middle and ended with the joyful Mendelssohn. I wish they had, although I suppose it's an indication of their artistic integrity that they chose to eschew the obvious and perhaps more popular option, and to end instead with the more difficult and challenging piece.

© 2011 David Powell