The Emerson Quartet took on the daunting task in its January Duke Performances visit to the Reynolds Industry Theater of presenting two entirely different programs, both of them sandwiching some presumably meaty modern music between two selections from the standard repertoire. I took in the first, at 3 p.m.
The quartet led off with the fourth from Beethoven’s early set of Quartets Op. 18, works which are easily digestible in comparison with his later essays in the form. From the outset I had the impression that the Emerson was playing it safe, that the listener would not get the sense that this might have been an Angry Young Man, the John Zorn of his day. The interpretation was disappointingly tepid. Technical mastery should make possible the exploration of extremes of expression, make it possible to take risks, but, alas, there were no moments in this Beethoven where the players were on the edge. No, they had heard it all before, and so had we. The material which opens the closing movement was lacking fire, and without this there can be no contrast with the later lyricism.
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) is a modernist whose stock among her fellow composers is very high. "Terra Memoria" is her second work for string quartet, and was premiered by the Emerson Quartet in June 2007 (it was commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation to honor 30 years of activity by the Emerson). Saariaho says that the work is dedicated “for those departed," and the work has an elegiac, or perhaps funereal tone. It is structured in one large movement, divided into a number of contrasting sections, and the opening seems to come out of the murk with the strings barely sounding, and moves into sliding chromatic harmonies decorated with trills and harmonics. Saariaho clearly has an individual voice, and this work is one which could be absorbed at the first listening, but will clearly repay repeated visits. The Emerson found some unusual colors here, but as in the Beethoven I was hoping that they would take it farther, go deeper, slide into the abyss. One of the composer’s devices here is a chromatic slide, which, instead of fading out, is wrenched off. I wanted to hear a groan of anguish, instead of the politeness emitted by the Emerson.
After intermission, the program closed with the Brahms Quartet, Op 51, No. 2, which almost made me agree with Shaw’s vituperations re: Brahms. It left me wondering why the quartet could not have found something lighter to contrast with the heavy lifting before intermission, and grappling with the more fundamental question of how a quartet can find ways to play the same repertoire while making it new each time.