Friday, April 06, 2012

Emerson Quartet Plays Mozart and Beethoven

WL and I heard the Emerson String Quartet play at Alice Tully two nights ago. The performance of Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K.546 (1788) and String Quartet in B-flat major, K.589 ("Prussian") (1790) was polished but not particularly compelling. WL said they sounded like a band accompanying Viennese waltzes. I agreed. I said they sounded like elevator music. The Alternate Finale to Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat major, the final movement that he substituted for the original Grosse Fugue on the insistence of his publisher, was not much better. It was light and airy enough, like candy floss. Only the slightly manic tempo of the performance gave the music an edge.

After the intermission was the main event, the full string quartet. The first four movements were still played in a rather uninspired fashion, the Presto performed at a very fast tempo. In the fifth, the Cavatina, however, there was a transformation. It was as if a completely different group of musicians took over. Instead of well-shined professionalism, we heard deep and genuine investment on the part of the players. According to the program note, Beethoven reportedly stated that no music he had written moved him as deeply.

The Grosse Fuge was also given its full heft and density. The program note, by Paul Schiavo, describes the movement of the music thus:

It begins with what Beethoven labels an Overtura: 30 measures of prelude presenting a single thematic idea in several rhythmic iterations. With it, the composer establishes a tonal idiom by intense, restless harmonic inflection. Beethoven now begins to treat this nascent theme in fugal imitation, adding a vigorous second idea as a counter-subject, and developing theme and counter-theme together in complex echoic counterpoint. Eventually, the strict contrapuntal treatment gives way to other developments of startling diverse character: a euphonious cantabile episode, scherzando passages that might sound trite in a less elevated context, another large fugal section, and more. Such extraordinary juxtaposing of fugal counterpoint with very different sorts of musical invention explains, and is explained by Beethoven's famous heading of the Grosse Fuge score: Tantôt libre, tantôt recherché (Sometimes free, sometimes rigorous")
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The performance of the last two movements touched the sublime. Of the Grosse Fuge, Stravinsky wrote that it was "this absolutely contemporary piece of music that will remain contemporary forever.... I love it beyond any other." That night, the distance between musicians and us melted away, and the music filled me with intolerable longings.

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