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A Matter of Philosophy

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/08/2001 -  
Gyorgy Kurtag: Hommage a Mihaly Andras
Johann Sebastian Bach: Selections from The Art of the Fugue
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet # 13

Emerson String Quartet
Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker (violins)
Lawrence Dutton (viola)
David Finckel (cello)

“Beauty…will come, as always, unannounced,
and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essay on Art (1841)

Once, in his later years, Anton Webern was asked about his relationships with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. “Ah”, he replied, “the old masters!” It has now been sufficiently long enough for others to venerate the Austrian miniaturist as an important link in our cultural history. Although Gyorgy Kurtag pays direct homage to one of his teachers in his microludes, he perhaps more significantly reveals a reverence for the techniques of the last great serialist. The twelve aphoristic pieces for string quartet form a sort of “ludus atonalis” as they progress by half steps through the chromatic scale from C to B. Reminiscent of Webern in many respects, particularly the flutter-tonguing of the Six Bagatelles, these nine minutes of music were very spiritually satisfying as an opening to last evening’s concert by the Emerson String Quartet. What none of us knew at the time, however, was that they were the performance highlight of the night.

The first few measures of the Bach revealed why I do not care for this ensemble. The famous main theme is stated by each of the four instruments in turn (Bach did not specify instrumentation for this work and so any combination is fair game) and the members of this particular quartet regaled us with as thin a sonority as possible. I’m sure that they are highly committed to their particular aesthetic; it is just antithetical to my own. The individual sections droned on as if they were exercises rather than serious music and the Emersonians increased my discomfort level by never varying their dynamics. The entire set seemed like the sort of boring practice session so cleverly parodied by Debussy in his Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum and the performance was as dry as one of the sermons of the quartet’s namesake.

I love the Beethoven so that I was at first willing to be seduced by the solid blending of these instrumentalists. They even demonstrated that they can vibrate the fingers of their left hands at least a little. The arid quality of their tone and style, however, soon made me thirst for some more zaftig approach and the technical surety of the group was no substitute for a romantically thoughtful interpretation. Certainly the quartet should be applauded for resurrecting the grosse fuge ending of the piece (Beethoven’s original conception), however, their advocacy for this particular music would be strengthened immeasurably if they allowed just a little emotional humidity into their desert of intonational “purity”.

The number of unoccupied seats attested to the fact that this performance was anything but Over-Soul’d. The Emerson has a splendid reputation, but I have the self-reliance to inform you that this particular experience was anything but transcendental.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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