by Daniel Hathaway
Last Tuesday evening, December 5, the Emerson String Quartet visited the Cleveland Chamber Music Society series at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights for the first time in several years. They made up for that hiatus with performances of striking works by Haydn, Britten, and Shostakovich, the last of the three all the more intense for having been played with most of the lights out.
Lots of quartet programs launch with Haydn, but not many of them with such an unusual work as Op. 20, No. 2, where the composer seemed predisposed to make each movement singular and eccentric even in the context of C Major. The Emerson respected Haydn’s “moderato” marking for the first movement with measured pacing, giving time for each odd harmonic and melodic development to be noticed. A “Capriccio” for the slow movement? The Emerson took note of that as well, colluding with the composer’s flights of fancy, including a non-ending that segues into a non-minuet, then into a four-subject fugue, handsomely articulated by Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton, and Paul Watkins.
Setzer and Drucker swapped places for Benjamin Britten’s Second Quartet, the composer’s tribute to his musical soulmate Henry Purcell on the 250th anniversary of his death in 1695. Another work that sought to find new things to say in the key with no sharps or flats, this quartet continues to sound both radical and grounded in tradition — Britten’s insistent use of big, structural C-Major chords pulls the piece back onto the rails on several occasions.
Most striking is the “Chacony,” where Britten tips his hat to Purcell’s frequent use of the chaconne or passacaglia, though eccentrically via the use of a 9-bar phrase. Solo cadenzas provide interludes that interrupt the progress of the movement every six variations. The Emerson put the work across with power and authority.
After intermission, the tonality of the evening modulated from C Major to E-flat Minor as the management doused all but the platform lights for Dmitri Shostakovich’s valedictory Quartet No. 15. The lighting effect was a bold and effective move which served to further concentrate the ear on its six slow movements that meditate on death.
The Emerson played the work grippingly, from the winding, grey-tinged counterpoint of the “Elegy” through the chilling, full bow strokes and releases of the “Serenade” and the inexorable dotted rhythms of the “Funeral March” to the final tremolos and aching solos that reprise the bleakness of the first movement. What might have been depressing ended up stirring the deepest reaches of the soul. No encore was possible, and none was proffered.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com December 11, 2017.
Click here for a printable copy of this article