Playing with serious enthusiasm

Review: The Emerson String Quartet gives a stunning performance that is both sobering and stimulating.

January 17, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

According to conventional rules of programming, selections should provide contrasting moods, a mix of sonic uppers and downers. By that reasoning, the Emerson String Quartet's concert Sunday at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall was downright contrary - three sobering works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bartok. Even the encore maintained the atmosphere, Barber's solemn "Adagio for Strings."

But a more stimulating musical encounter would be hard to find.

Chamber music fans flock to the Emerson ensemble precisely for this sort of deeply considered, mentally and emotionally involving experience. Since 1976, these four players have produced enough electricity to solve California's energy crisis.

They are apparently incapable of coasting through a performance or letting a phrase pass by without intently examining it from every angle.

This process of delving beneath the notes is not a private one; there is always a door left wide open for audiences to join the musicians in the act of discovery. On this occasion, the path was clear and magnetic right from the first, agitated seconds of Beethoven's Op. 95. (This quartet's nickname, "Serioso," could have served as the title for the entire program.)

The group paid particular attention to the second movement's fugue, with its air of weary resignation; each phrase was carefully weighted.

And the musicians vividly caught the irony behind the half-hearted burst of optimism at the very end of the quartet; Beethoven's struggle with ideas and emotions did not end but would continue on in the subconscious long afterward.

With his 13th quartet, Shostakovich seems to have stared straight into the face of death without blinking. This does not make for easy listening; it can be as uncomfortable as hearing someone's confession.

The Emersonians delved into the material with customary technical security and expressive eloquence.

There was a riveting tautness to the performance, from the persistent knock of three repeated notes to the literal, hollow, chilling knocks delivered to the sides of instruments by the players. Violist Lawrence Dutton molded his solos, the connective threads of the piece, with remarkable purity and depth of tone.(Too bad someone suddenly started clapping long before the end of the work, while others wouldn't wait for the last sounds to fade away in the hall before trampling over them with applause.)

Bartok's Fourth Quartet, a masterpiece of design and content, highlighted the ensemble's virtuosity; the skittery, eerie second movement and dancing savagery of the finale were played with particular brilliance. The cello's lament in the third movement emerged compelling from David Finckel. The performance had an arresting tension and dark beauty.

The Barber "Adagio" unfolded not in the super-romantic manner associated with the better-known, full-string orchestra arrangement of the piece, but with a sense of grief that is beyond tears. Adding to the poignancy was the concert's dedication to Rita Genecin, late aunt of Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker and longtime supporter of the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

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