Emerson Quartet at Carnegie Hall
Life and death takes center stage at concerts
Trying to illuminate one art form by combining it with another carries the risk of diminishing both, but when imaginative musicians like the Emerson Quartet—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel—embark on such an undertaking, the result is always rewarding. Long known for its innovative, adventurous programming, the group is giving two concerts at Carnegie Hall—unfortunately not an ideal place for chamber music—called Text/Subtext and exploring the relationship between music and narrative. A guest singer contributes the literary element.
The first program, on February 8, was permeated by an inexorable sense of doom, though in Czech composer Bedrich Smetana's autobiographical Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life," tragedy does not strike until the end. The first movement depicts the composer's youthful hope and joy; the Scherzo is a partly robust, partly lilting peasant dance, the slow movement an ecstatic, romantic love song. The Finale begins rambunctiously, but is interrupted by a shrill harmonic representing the persistent high-pitched sound in his ear that presaged the onset of his deafness. An anguished, heart-breaking fragment from its first movement ends the piece in hopeless despair.
Baritone Thomas Hampson joined the Quartet for Samuel Barber's "Dover Beach," set to Matthew Arnold's famous 1867 poem about isolation and loss of faith. Its somber, disillusioned world-view seems as apt in our day as in his. Though composed when Barber was only 20, the music reflects the poet’s bitter, resigned weariness admirably.
The Emerson closed the program with Franz Schubert's great Quartet in D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden." Written in the knowledge of his fatal illness, the piece seems haunted by forebodings of death and has a desperate, dramatic intensity. The dark, mournful slow movement is a set of variations on the song of the same name; they go from subdued anguish to passionate protest and calm serenity, finally sinking back in resignation. To introduce it, Hampson, accompanied by pianist Craig Rutenberg, sang "Death and the Maiden," preceded by two songs in which Death is welcomed as a merciful deliverer from suffering: "The Youth and Death," and "Gravedigger's Homesickness."
The concert, despite its interesting conception, was not entirely successful. The Emerson has been playing standing up recently (the cellist sits on a small platform), probably for greater ease and freedom of movement. It looks a bit strange, but more importantly, it seemed to affect the balance in Carnegie Hall's large space. The texture was blurred, vague, and muddy; the violist, turning toward the audience, sounded disproportionately prominent; the violinists, turning toward each other, and the cellist, sitting too far back, were often inaudible. The playing, though commanding as always, seemed at times uncomfortable, emotionally distant, and uninvolved.
The second and final concert in the Text/Subtext series, on May 4 and also at Carnegie Hall, features Leos Janácek's Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata," Felix Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 2, and the song "Is it True?" on which it is based. Here, and in the world premiere of a work for soprano and string quartet by André Previn, the singer is soprano Barbara Bonney.