The Emerson String Quartet continued its fortieth-anniversary celebrations with an Alice Tully program spanning three centuries, beginning with Shostakovich No.10.
Composed in 1964, eleven years after Stalin’s death, the work conveys an emotional intimacy finally let loose after years of suppression by the Soviet regime. Philip Setzer led a polished account. Ponticello tremolos in the opening Andante were icy, and the following Allegretto furioso featured fiercely biting bowing. The haunting Adagio (a passacaglia) was the highlight, Setzer employing a wide range of vibrato, and concluding with an exquisitely blended duet between him and Paul Watkins. The Finale began with Lawrence Dutton’s sarcastic viola, the balance skewed towards the lower end, giving a weighty finish.
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Shroud (world-premiered on September 27) consists of five movements. The outer ones are memorials to Christopher Mills, whom Turnage credits for introducing him to “a lot of non-classical music like Howlin’ Wolf and black soul music.” The central movements are lighter in mood and dedicated to the Emerson Quartet. Eugene Drucker took over the first-chair. The opening ‘Threnody’ channels the preceding Shostakovich in spirit, arguing against death, an impassioned beginning growing into a groovy funk rhythm that portrays loss in a different context. ‘Intermezzo 1’ features short quizzical passages passed equally among the voices, and ‘March’ is a joyous affair, with dramatic swells creating a whimsical mood. ‘Intermezzo 2’ displays increasing complexity, and ‘Lament’ returns to the dark longing of the opening ‘Threnody’. Shroud is phenomenal!
For the Schubert the Emerson members were joined by their former cellist David Finckel, and Setzer led. He underplayed the dynamics in the opening movement, allowing the cellos their turn in the spotlight. Tempos were straightforward with minimal rubato, giving the music a classical feel. Setzer’s bowing was soft and subtle in the Adagio’s outer sections, allowing a huge contrast with the passionate middle. These two cellists have vastly different timbres; Watkins’s being rich and most beautiful in the lower range and Finckel’s more cutting in the higher, but generally weaker and less appealing. It would have been interesting to hear the roles reversed, Finckel playing the first part, which is more in the upper register. The gypsy-inflected Scherzo was exuberant, and the concluding Allegretto equally exciting, although the balance was too much towards the bass, Setzer’s spiccato arpeggios becoming lost. This was not an overly thoughtful interpretation, but it was a joy to hear such masterly playing.