It’s 18 months since the Emerson String Quartet’s first concert with their new cellist, renowned soloist and conductor, Paul Watkins. Yet to hear them perform yesterday, one would assume they had all been playing together for many years.  Founded in 1976, the Emersons have made no line-up changes in 34 years prior to the departure of cellist David Finckel.  Founder members Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (violins) were joined early on by Lawrence Dutton (viola).

Emerson String Quartet © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Emerson String Quartet
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

They perform standing, apart from Watkins of course, who was on a slightly raised platform and placed centrally, between Dutton on his left and the two violinists, Drucker and Setzer, to his right. Whilst I like the more centrally grounded bass this gives, it actually created a balance issue, with the violins a little less present in places, and the lower strings occasionally dominating the texture.

Throughout their performances, the Emersons demonstrated their immense experience and professional poise. However, there was at times a slight mismatch between the communicative stage presence of Watkins, and perhaps Dutton, which contrasted noticeably with the more introspective, intensity of Drucker and Setzer. Personally, I warm to the more open communicative approach, but this is a matter of taste. But perhaps as these fine players continue to work and perform together, a more consistent approach to performance may emerge.

They began their programme with Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op.33 no. 2, the second in a set of six often known as the Russian quartets, from Haydn’s dedication to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia. The second is also known as “The Joke”, because of the way in which Haydn plays with the listener’s expectations at the end of the final Rondo, using a succession of broken phrases and pauses to trick us into thinking the music is over, before finally ending with a pianissimo fragment of the theme. Humour in music is hard to bring off successfully, but the Emersons’ straight-faced but poised approach here was perfectly judged. In the earlier movements, there were some slightly tentative moments, particularly in the slightly boisterous, folky Scherzo. However, the viola and cello duet which opens the slow movement was played with warmth and sensitivity.

Ravel’s String Quartet in F was dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, yet it is most often compared to that of Debussy. Setzer took over from Drucker on the first violin desk, and the Emersons now entered a richer sound-world. The opening movement is intimate and subtle, and the warmth and strength of the viola and cello in particular felt more appropriate here than in the Haydn. They all clearly enjoyed the spicy pizzicato rhythms of the scherzo, and the central muted cello and viola duet was a joy. The third movement is a trickier movement to pull off, with its wandering, dreamy cyclical structure, and this didn’t quite hang together coherently enough, despite some beautifully lyrical playing from all. However, the lively finale with its five against three rhythms was given a tight and energetic performance, bringing the first half of the concert to a suitably rousing end.

After the interval, things got serious. The String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130 is one of five quartets, which, together with the Große Fuge, were Beethoven’s final published works. After the première of Op. 130, Beethoven replaced the final Große Fuge with an alternative smaller scale Allegro, and published the former separately. Yet it makes such perfect sense of all that has gone before in the previous five movements, it is always good to hear it in this original context.

Drucker took back the first desk for the Emersons’ performance, and from the opening bars, there was a new intensity to their playing, almost a sense of foreboding. In the first movement, Beethoven employs his oft-used technique of returning to fragments of the slow introduction at various points to interrupt the allegro theme, subverting the otherwise straight sonata form. One or two slight lapses of concentration could be detected here from the violins, perhaps anticipating the mountain still to be climbed in this colossal six-movement giant of a piece. However, these were momentary, and the serenity of the central development section was a suitably reverent calm before the gathering storm.

The brief quirky and mercurial Presto scherzo fizzed with energy, and in the affectionate Andante and deceptively innocent Alla danza tedesca which follow, there was a definite nod back to the sound-world of the Haydn from the beginning of the concert. Yet this all changed with their beautifully touching rendition of the exquisitely sad Cavatina, setting the stage perfectly for the mammoth Große Fuge to come. The Emersons took the colossal, angular theme by the throat, with almost violent attack. Immediately the sadness of the preceding Cavatina was replaced by rage, and as the complexity of this radical music built, teetering on the edge of chaos, this performance became profoundly uncomfortable to listen to, exactly as it should be. The musical joke of the dance-like interlude which twice interrupts the chaos is altogether darker and more sinister than Haydn’s joyful trick from earlier, and the Emersons left us in no doubt of the seriousness of this challenging statement from Beethoven. However many times one hears this radical music, it still has the power to unsettle on a profound level.