Archived Story

The Emerson String Quartet – famously fabulous, but…

Published 4:34pm Monday, November 5, 2012

The only entire piece I consider a success was Antonin Dvorak’s “String Quartet No. 9 in D minor, Op. 34.” Filled with the influences of Czech folk music, it begs for overdone schmaltz, so I was grateful for the ensemble’s considered restraint. This allowed me to enjoy my vision of ladies in colorful skirts twirling to the sound of happy musicians in open vests without having the whole scene degenerate into “Dancing With The Stars in Regional Costumes.” Dvorak’s music is a complex and continuous blend of serious and light. To lean too far in either direction can sound like amateur actors reading Shakespeare. Congratulations to the quartet for this definitive performance.

Sadly, and for the first time in my life, I was bored during Brahms. Any Brahms, all Brahms, lifts me quickly and engages me completely no matter how tired I might be and no matter what is on my mind. I struggled to fall into this performance of “String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2” and remained befuddled until the end.

The restraint that worked so well in the Dvorak was not a good idea for a piece filled with Brahms’s typical chill-generating hemiolas and soaring, overlapping lines of breathtaking range and intensity. I wanted an absence of linearity – like a mountain stream that occasionally widens and surges – with the music flowing like rushing water around random rocks of various sizes as if barlines were a quaint notion thrown in for convention’s sake. The fourth movement showed signs of life, but by then I was dreaming about Stern, Ma, and Ax playing one of the piano trios.

Thankfully, the encore was one of Dvorak’s twelve gorgeous “Cypresses,” which were adapted by Dvorak for string quartet from love songs he wrote when he was smitten with a 16-year-old student. (He married her sister.) Although “Cypresses” is often referred to as “chamber music lite,” this piece was a compelling – and beautifully done – ending to an uneven recital.

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