Dvořák, Shostakovich, Beethoven
The Emerson String Quartet, one of the leading American quartets of our time and currently on a hectic European tour, brought to Malvern three works: Dvořák’s 11th Quartet Op. 61, Shostakovich’s 4th, Op. 83, and Beethoven’s A minor Quartet, Op. 132. Perhaps responding to the fact that Dvořák’s quartet was a Viennese commission, the Emersons played No. 11 as if it were Brahms, a hyper-expressive approach that I found unconvincing. However, the Finale demonstrated just what could be achieved with a freer, lighter style in which even the frantic mock fugato section shone with an effervescent brilliance. Here at last the performance came together.
The Emersons represent the ‘American’ style of quartet playing characterised by a taut, continuous vibrato and powerful bow-strokes. This style is fast becoming old-fashioned as younger quartets seek to emulate the quieter, more sensuous sounds of period instruments, but Shostakovich wrote his quartets with this older style in mind, and the Emersons’ performance was stunning. Held on a very tight rein, this music became all the more potent in its restraint. It is difficult to imagine those lonely, winding solo lines or those desperate tutti gestures played in any other way.
The Beethoven had many beautiful moments, but the slightly slow tempos and a tendency to sacrifice movement for expression in the Adagio passages sometimes blocked the flow. But the Finale, like the finale of the Dvořák and all the Shostakovich, demonstrated just how outstanding the Emerson quartet can be: the tempo here was perfectly judged, allowing for the subtlest interplay between the instruments whilst maintaining direction unerringly to the end. As an encore we were treated to a subtle, restrained playing of a Bach chorale prelude, arranged for string quartet. In a gracious speech at the end, the British cellist, Paul Watkins, commended the audience for its attentive and enthusiastic listening.