Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Emerson String Quartet: Beethoven op 131, Finale

This is part three of my review of three different recordings of the last movement of this great string quartet. The introduction is here, part one is here and part two is here.

The Emerson String Quartet, formed in 1976, are the only one of the three to be still together. They are American, named after the New England poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and based in New York State. They have achieved acclaim for their performance of works in a wide variety of styles from Bach (a fine recording of the Art of Fugue) to Bartók, to Shostakovich, to Charles Ives. They are therefore the quartet of the three that is most remote from the Viennese traditions and Beethoven. Both violinists studied with Oscar Shumsky, himself an American.

Emerson String Quartet

As you can see, they break with one tradition in that three of the members stand to play. Again, the recording I am going to review is not available on YouTube. Here is that recording, a lower-priced reissue of their original 1997 recording:

Just to give you a sense of how dynamic this quartet can be playing Shostakovich, here is their version of the third movement of his Third String Quartet:

Their performance of the Finale is just a bit faster than the other two quartets. To my mind, this is a better tempo. Emerson have wonderful ensemble; they are the tightest of the three. The sound is perhaps a bit less warm and a bit more glossy. They seem to take Beethoven's dynamics, especially the pianos just a tad more seriously than the others. One thing that comes across really well are the articulated scales and staccato quarter notes.

My personal feeling, and let me stress that this is just a personal feeling, is that I would, if only as an experiment, like to hear Beethoven played with more abandon. I would like more crunch, more scrape, more violence. Joseph Kerman refers to the "violence of the main theme, its pent-up emotion, its wildness." That up-and-down anapest is a very intense theme both rhythmically and intervallically. The subsequent contrast with that piano winding scalar descent would be even more striking if it were played with more crunch. I think I like Emerson most because they capture a bit more of the intensity. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Vienna did not become a great deal more genteel during the 19th century so that string quartets in 1925 (let alone 1960 or 1980) were a great deal more delicate and refined than they were in 1825 when Beethoven wrote this quartet. Of course I have not got a shred of actual evidence! But performance practice does change over time and it is hard to imagine that, after a century of Romanticism, string quartets did not become more lyrical, more warm, in their performances.

Just a speculation...

No comments: