There's nothing as disappointing as knowing you are not getting the kind of performance that is expected. Whether we are talking about athletes, musicians, actors, students, or just about any human endeavor, we justifiably feel cheated when a "going through the motions" performance is what we get. Just about a year ago, the Emerson String Quartet played a recital in Duke's Page Auditorium that illustrated this point. This group has risen to the top of their craft and is universally lauded as one of the finest chamber music ensembles of all time. So when that recital seemed to have been played by four musicians whose minds were on vacation, it was a big letdown.
On December 3, this same group returned to the friendlier venue of Reynolds Auditorium, and they more than made up for their soulless playing of the previous year.
The Emerson String Quartet continues to be a group that employs two unusual performance practices: the two violinists share and swap the first and second violin parts across entire works, and all players (except the earthbound cellist) play standing up.
Despite the obvious physical freedom that comes from not being in a chair, the three upper strings tend not to use this physical release. They all stay pretty much within their self-imposed boundaries, keep extraneous motions to a minimum, and rarely convey any facial emotions. Cellist David Finckel plays on a slightly elevated wooden platform, and it is partially from this physical setup that he seems to be the quarterback of the group. He tends to be more physically involved, appears to conduct the others with his head and eyes, and is the most outwardly exuberant member of the group.
Those who were looking for a traditional string quartet program found this a perfect evening. Not only were three of the big names of the music gods represented, but each work was a perfect representation of the mature style of each composer.
The remarkable group of sixteen string quartets written by Beethoven are generally broken down into early, middle, and late groupings. The Opus 95 quartet, subtitled "Serioso," is more of a late middle work, coming from a point in the composer's life when many hardships, including certain deafness, came crashing down. But despite these circumstances and the somber subtitle, this is not a work steeped in despair or self-pity.
Beethoven is a master at taking the smallest and seemingly most insignificant motifs and using them as the basis for brilliant transformations. This is but one of the elements of his genius that shines in this work. From the opening angry, dramatic gesture to the final upsweep of optimistic energy, the four players were completely invested in the emotional content of the music, and it became apparent that – unlike last year – they were indeed in the here and now.
Shostakovich clocked in with fifteen string quartets, one shy of Ludwig's output. The tenth of these, written in 1964, is so representative of the great Russian composer's style that it almost becomes necessary to engage in the usual clichés when discussing it. Emotional intensity is an absolute requirement in portraying the artistic (and political) goals in most of Shostakovich's compositions, and this quartet is no exception. Even the serene, quiet movements have an edgy, fearful character to which the Emersons gave their hearts. And if you don't catch that subtlety, then there is an allegro furioso movement that astounds your ears and heats up your blood. Even without knowing the political history behind Shostakovich and the Soviet leadership, you can sense the turmoil. The performance reflected playing of incredible power and personal involvement.
After deafness, raging at the fates, pogroms, work camps, and artistic suppression, we finally were granted some relief from the pen of Felix Mendelssohn – a composer often described as the sunniest of all. His Opus 44 contains three string quartets, all written in 1837 and 1838 during the very early years of his marriage. This first of the trio, in D major, is the epitome of Mendelssohn's style. "Busy" is an adjective often associated with his works. The opening allegro is like a runaway train that you know players like the Emerson quartet will be able to handle, and the thrill of the ride made it exhilarating. The two middle movements are achingly beautiful folk-like settings that give you a chance to catch your breath and immerse yourself in the wonders of simple melodies played with grace and passion. When you have Mendelssohn as the composer and the movement designation presto con brio – make sure your seat belts are fastened.
Freedom, joy, the pure love of life, plus just plain showing off – this was the ending of the quartet. We were all glad that, on this trip to Durham, the Emerson Quartet brought not only their formidable technique but also their passion.