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Emerson String Quartet

New England Conservatory

Jordan Hall

December 5, 2008

The much-celebrated Emerson String Quartet performed in Boston last Friday, playing a mostly Dvorák concert that, through the juxtaposition of blasé and breathtaking, demonstrated concert magic.

The concert, held by the Celebrity Series of Boston in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, opened with an interpretation of Dvorák’s tenth quartet, also known as the “Slavonic,” which proved to be the only setback of the evening. The Emerson exuded all of its impressive technical unity, and none of its signature insightfulness and energy, leading to a disappointingly lackluster performance of a piece Dvorák composed during a particularly happy period in his life. As suggested by the quartet’s nickname, the piece incorporates elements of Czech national music, conjuring jovial, earthy dance rhythms, which, among other aspects, the Emerson failed to bring to life.

They quickly revived the mood, however, with the beloved Ravel quartet, a piece of wide emotional range that varies between reflective calm and unrestrained rapture, and evokes the sound of a Javanese gamelan orchestra. The performance was typical of Emerson excellence: tight and absorbing in its perfect subtlety.

Following intermission welcomed Webern’s Six Bagatelles, a very unusual piece not only because of its tonality, but also because at fifty-seven measures and about three minutes to perform, it is one of the shortest quartet pieces ever written. It is possible Webern intended to be as frugal as possible in expressing himself. The result is a piece of sharp dissonances and breathy harmonics that suggest profoundness, as realized by the Emerson’s precise playing.

Finally, upon the somber opening lines of the closing piece — Dvorák’s fourteenth quartet — it became apparent this interpretation would not suffer from the lack of intensity that blighted his tenth quartet at the start of the concert. That said, this quartet renounces any obvious inclination toward the American or Slavonic styles Dvorák so often integrated into his earlier music, making this refined piece more difficult to interpret than the tenth quartet.

The Emerson delivered the piece in such a way that brought me to my knees in admiration of its artistry, no surprise given the acclaim and veneration the ensemble has garnered over its thirty-two year marriage. Particularly memorable were moments when the first violin soared in the upper register while grounded by the remaining instruments, suggesting inspired hope and optimism. Every note, every phrase, received the attention it deserved, and the concert closed to enthusiastic applause.

The 1019-seat Jordan Hall, considered to have one of the best acoustics in America for classical music, was adequately suited for the performance. Chamber music, originally conceived to be performed for friends in intimate drawing rooms, requires a much smaller venue for its complete effect. Although the Emerson sounded distant at times, its compelling nature nonetheless absorbed the audience. Its members (except the cellist, for practical reasons) anomalously stood to allow maximum freedom for expression.