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In Emerson Heaven

Quartet Gives Moving Valentine’s Day Concert

By Jacqueline O'Connor

Emerson Quartet

Jordan Hall

Feb. 14, 8 p.m.

Ihad never been to Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, nor for that matter had I ever seen the Emerson String Quartet perform. Upon walking in, I was stunned by the backdrop of an ornate baroque organ, sloping seats that lead to a open stage with four stands and only one chair -- not just a chair, but a piano bench on a conductor’s platform. Even before they started playing, the quartet impressed me: with the exception of the cellist, the players stand when they play.

The concert, presented by FleetBoston Celebrity Series, opened with the highlight of the night, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Opus 18, No. 1. The Emerson Quartet set a sort of precedent for the Beethoven quartets with their 1997 recording of the complete set and may be most well-known for this monumental achievement. The quartet raised that bar further, for this audience, with their performance of Beethoven. The piece opened with a beautiful singing tone and sharp exactness in ensemble. Eye contact was established between all musicians from the first note and continued throughout the performance, giving the music a conversational feel.

Still shocked by the lack of chairs, I realized a few minutes into the performance how standing heightened the level of musicianship; the musicians and the music itself gained a sense of mobility. Though many may feel that their traditional interpretation of Beethoven is a weakness in a world where groups attempt to seek the next level of modern interpretation in classical music, there was a sense that night that the Emerson completely understood Beethoven’s meaning for these quartets. Cadences were perfectly placed and precise balance was achieved at all times, making four instruments sound like one.

The development of the first movement was marked not only by a change in tonality but a heightened dynamic level and modal contrasts. By the end of the first movement, I realized how wonderful a traditional interpretation could be. Chills ran down my spine as the opening violin solo to the second movement, modeled after the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, began with a mournful tone. The great difference in character between the two movements was strikingly effective and kept interests piqued. Even through the development, which switched to a major tonality, a sad singing quality was felt from the viola and cello lines, keeping continuity going through the entire movement. Unfortunately, the extra-long pauses that were taken before an otherwise gorgeous coda seemed to disturb the flow.

Again, the quartet put on a new face for the bouncy scherzo with a dancing melody and playful character. Technically challenging brush strokes were impressively executed in perfect unison and the frequent trills were performed with superhuman speed and clarity. Despite the technical precision called for in the movement, the Emerson breezed through the scherzo with ease and into an equally challenging trio while maintaining a visible sense of enjoyment.

The final movement opened with witty banter between the first violin’s cascading runs and the ensemble’s spicatto answers. This jovial mode was continued throughout the movement even through the short sojourns into the minor and singing passages reminiscent of the first movement. Once again, the Emerson exacted difficult technical obstacles in perfect unison. By the end of the movement, one got lost in the romping melodies and countermelodies and was deeply satisfied at the triumphant ending.

The following two selections on the program continued the trend of perfect ensemble and captivating flow. Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor opened with a gorgeously dark viola melody followed by the rest of the ensemble playing an anemic answer. The first movement focused mainly on the soloistic capabilities of the instruments. Each part had a chocolate-sounding melody and the intense tutti sections were few and far between.

Despite this initial focus, the piece moved more and more towards ensemble melodies. The second movement featured a lopsided tune played by the second violin. Throughout the movement, each instrument was used as a percussion instrument. The second violinist, for example, used his chin rest as a sort of wood block. The third movement opened with another sad viola melody reminiscent of the one from the beginning. Within this movement, Shostakovich makes effectual cross-references to lyrical melodies from his fifth and seventh symphonies.

Again, the Emerson took a rather traditional yet extremely effective approach to this work. This group has also made a recording of the entire set of fifteen quartets.

The last piece on the program was the string quartet warhorse, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Despite this piece’s propensity towards being overplayed, the Emerson’s performance kept interest and life in the music throughout the four movements.

Highlights included a beautifully resonant opening melody in the first movement, a distant chorale to close the second movement, and a “rumpus” country dance in the last movement that lead to a glorious end. After numerous ovations, the Emerson gave, as an encore, an exciting rendition of the third movement from Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3.

The Emerson Quartet truly lives up to its image of one of the foremost quartets in the world. Their passionate energy, deep insight into the music, and palpable enjoyment during performance make each concert a gem.