BEETHOVEN AND SCHUBERT IN DIVINE PERFORMANCES
BY EMERSON QUARTET
By Lawrence Budmen
Even by the prolific creative standards of the 19th century, 1826 was a stellar year for chamber music. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was in the process of composing his six late quartets - works that would redefine the art form. The ailing Franz Schubert (1797-1828) turned out one masterpiece after another. His final string quartet (written in 1826) was a summation of his unique musical aesthetic. (Both composers had been students of Antonio Salieri - the preeminent composer-teacher of the era - whose other students included Mozart, Cherubini, and Czerny. Salieri had only passed away the previous year. His influence on Vienna's musical life was immense.) Rarely has there been such a convergence of creative talent on the genius level working at the same time in one city. The Emerson String Quartet celebrated that remarkable pinnacle of creativity on January 21 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall - an evening of divine music making.
If Beethoven had only written his final six string quartets, that would have been enough for him to be enshrined in immortality. The dissonance, chromaticism, elongated formal structures, and unforgiving instrumental demands of these scores make them forever both contemporary and timeless. Indeed these works could well have been written by Arnold Schoenberg or Alexander von Zemlinsky - so modernist is their musical aesthetic. After reinventing the symphony and the piano sonata, Beethoven was breaking new ground, exploring new harmonies and tonal ambiguities; yet, for all its unsettling complexity, this music is incredibly eloquent and beautiful. The "String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor," Opus 131 is one of Beethoven's most experimental, original creations. Instead of the standard classical four movements, this quartet is in seven continuous movements. In place of the bright lyricism in the earlier quartets, the melodies are long breathed; the thematic material rarely resolves itself in the standard A-B-A sonata form. The score's bracing harmonies and tonal ambivalence is unique in the Beethoven canon.
The musicians of Beethoven's day could not play these ground breaking works. It remained for the virtuoso quartets of the 20th century (beginning with the legendary Budapest String Quartet) to bring this remarkable music to life. It would be difficult to imagine a more accomplished group playing these Beethoven quartets today than the Emerson Quartet. Their combination of technical brilliance and musical insight is in a class by itself. The Emerson foursome (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; and David Finckel, cello) vividly evoked the mysterious harmonies and hazy, slowly evolving melodic lines of the opening Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo. The manic intensity they brought to the Allegro molto vivace was striking. The music was almost terrifying in its unhinged forward thrust. The Emerson is a group that is not afraid to take interpreter risks. Their incredible musicality was always at the service of the true spirit of Beethoven. Rarely has the Theme and Variations of the Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile been played with such tonal beauty; yet the music's underlying tension was powerfully projected. The rapt serenity of the Emerson's rendition of the moving Adagio quasi un poco andante set the stage for their boldly astringent, virtuosic performance of the concluding Allegro. Instead of the customary stage seating, the musicians played standing (except, of course for cellist Finckel) and this seemed to infuse their performance with tremendous energy and commitment. A monument of Western culture in a magnificent performance by great artists!
Like Beethoven Franz Schubert (1797-1828) moved to new creative vistas in his final years. Schubert's last three piano sonatas, the incredible String Quintet (with two cellos), the sketches for the unfinished Tenth Symphony (partially completed by Luciano Berio and given an invigorating performance last season by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony) and the final "String Quartet in G Major," Opus Posthumous 161, D.887 seem to inhabit a new musical universe. Schubert's always potent melodic gift is elevated to something approaching sublimity in these final scores. The heart of the G Major Quartet is the second movement Andante un poco moto - music of intense, heavenly serenity. The Emerson players' gorgeous, passionately articulated performance of this magnificent work was simply divine! The musicians were no less persuasive in the lilting Scherzo: Allegro vivace - played with Vienesse brio. Their vigorous account of the Allegro assai capped a truly great performance!
The Emerson String Quartet's playing inhabits an artistic league of its own. Their silky string sound, fervent intensity of utterance, and great ensemble playing are difficult to equal; let alone surpass. Their riveting performances of Beethoven and Schubert quartets were the Gold Standard of chamber music! Music making on the most exalted level!