Friends of Chamber Music

The Emerson String Quartet

Dates and Venue Tuesday, 5 February 2008 @ 8 pm | The Vancouver Playhouse

Brahms String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 Schubert String Quartet in A minor, Op. 29, D. 804 "Rosamunde" Brahms String Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, No. 1

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

Reviewer J H Stape

Always much anticipated, the annual Vancouver concert by the Emerson String Quartet -- the Cadillac of string quartets -- packs the house, sees the Lobby abuzz during intermission, and engenders a scrum at the impromptu CD boutique.

And should one be so foolhardy as to require the distant amenities, whether bar or restroom, a suitably polite elbow is a virtual necessity. Last night's concert, generously sponsored by Paul and Edwina Heller for the fourth year running, proved no exception to these well established rituals. There was a standing ovation and an encore -- Webern's Langsam from Opus 5.

The unpredictable element in all this proved to be the programme, originally promising (on the Friends of Chamber Music website at least) one including, quite adventurously, Martinu and Bartók. Caprice intervened to see even the order of the Brahms quartets announced in the programme printed for the concert subject to the old switcheroo.

Opus 51, No. 2, solemn and serious, was played first, and the more dramatic Opus 51, No. 1, with its bravura ending, reserved for the close. (A much better choice). A will-o-the-wisp also proved to be at work in that the second violinist's luggage went astray, and he was reduced to playing in a not very comfortably fitting lounge suit.

This would be enough to put the sensitive off stride, but the Emerson, without a batted eye plunged into Opus 51, No. 2, fresh from rehearsals for their new Brahms CD and from the current tour. Intense and intimate, the quartet develops its materials in a leisurely way, the "non troppo" marking of the Allegrofully observed, and the Andante of a wistful and troubled character, even dallying with sadness.

The "Quasi Menuetto" third movement, as its name suggests, maintains the tentative mood, with a constrained and pensive dance, a pale copy of the ordered fling usually intended by the minuet. Only in the final movement does tight-lipped restraint give way, with a gypsy mood and a more thoroughly lyrical impulse coming to the fore, underwritten by pulsing energy and open confidence.

Schubert's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 29 (1824) is blue-chip German Romanticism, its passionately lyrical opening movement followed by an Andante of easy flowing melodic character and stressing the cozy, the domestic and the intimate. A tightly buttoned up minuet, stately and fussily formal, forbids any further familiarities, but the Finale opens up into true dance-like rhythms. Self-consciously charming and teasingly playful, it is finally spring-like in mood.

Brahms's String Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, No. 1 proved worth waiting for. Bold at its opening, the music takes on a nervous and jumpy undertone, with much frilly embroidery for the viola and cello, finally achieving a "big" almost orchestral sound. Lush, velvety Romanticism of a heart-on-sleeve kind dominates the sublimely gorgeous second movement Romanze, all plaintiveness and achingly yearning.

A relief from interiority and complexity, the third movement Allegretto, with its sharply rhythmic character and quicker tempi, moves to a breezy joviality before rhythmic intensities recur and dominate. The closing Allegro announces a return to passionate intensity. Densely textured and relentlessly coloured materials develop in bright, driven fashion until a bravura ending is hinted at and finally washes over.

As always, the Emerson offered highly sophisticated interpretations and an unrestrained silken tone. Celebrating a quarter century of joint music--making, the group remains a "must hear" if one finds oneself anywhere within fifty kilometres of it. I, for one, can't wait for their return next season.

© 2008 J H Stape