Review: Emerson String Quartet at Comstock Hall

Emerson String Quartet credit Lisa Mazzucco

(Photo credit: Lisa Mazzucco)

The celebrated Emerson String Quartet returned to Louisville on Sunday for their second performance in as many years, this time as part of the Chamber Music Society of Louisville’s concert series at Comstock Hall (their last performance was with the Louisville Orchestra).

The first two movements of Mozart’s Quartet in G major, K. 387, provided a lukewarm first impression, with intonation issues between the violins playing unison or an octave apart. The off-beat accents in the Menuetto were a bit forced and too punctuated. Mozart’s operatic third movement gave Philip Setzer a chance to shape sublime phrases with elegance. A vigorous final movement gave the composer the last laugh with a fake ending causing fairly hefty applause too early, requiring Mr. Setzer to tell the audience that the music was not over, after which the final few bars were played. You could almost hear Tom Hulce’s Amadeus cackling.

Central to the program in structure and length was the challenging and engrossing Lyric Suite by Alban Berg. As one of the second-Viennese composers mentored by Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s use of the often clinical twelve-tone system is generally more melodic and approachable. Here in this dense and mystical score, Emerson was most comfortable with each player afforded textures rich and sparse, sparkling and gritty.

Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74, from 1809 sits squarely among some of his most lauded works, including the third and fifth symphonies, the violin concerto, Fidelio and the “Waldstein” piano sonata. But unlike these emotionally weighty companions, the “Harp” quartet is, generally, lighter. Emerson’s delivery was passionate, if a little heavy. Violinist Eugene Drucker’s dexterity through a flurry of notes during the coda of the first movement was brilliant. Violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins found moments to make their sound bloom in the final set of variations.

For an encore, Emerson played a Fantasia by Henry Purcell originally for a viol consort. Their playing wasn’t imitative of viols, but just sensitive enough for clarity. In some ways the Purcell sounded more like the Beethoven than the Beethoven.

If the concert seemed plodding, it wasn’t from the musicians performance, but the long pauses between every movement. Most seemed necessary for tuning – the hall was warm and stuffy, which could have been the culprit – but there was little connective tissue between movements. Unfortunately, these breaks added up making for a first half that had little momentum and energy.

The final concert of the Chamber Music Society of Louisville is Thursday at 7:30pm featuring Brooklyn Rider at the Clifton Center.

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