While the term “atonal” may be most commonly associated with German expressionism and 12-tone composition, earlier French impressionists also deviated from tonality with techniques including nontraditional chord progressions and an embrace of exotic, non-Western scales. On Friday night at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, the peerless Emerson String Quartet put these multiple meanings of atonality on display in a program of works by Debussy, Berg, and Ravel.
The evening began with the only quartet that Ravel ever composed. True to the composer’s performance indication, the first movement was indeed très doux (very sweet/soft). Emerson exaggerated the pianissimo passages to such an extent that I found myself on the edge of my seat, leaning into the performance.
Emerson is a world-class quartet partly because of the players’ fervent attention to detail: the infallible synchrony of their pizzicato plucks, the breathtaking decisiveness of their cohesive cadential gestures. Pizzicato was especially important in Ravel’s second movement, which is famous for sounding inspired by pentatonic, Indonesian gamelan.
These enchanting tone colors mesmerized like strange insects delicately dancing on the surface of troubled water — the trouble here being that Ravel likely knew about gamelan because a main attraction of the 1889 world’s fair in Paris was a human zoo wherein indigenous people from various French colonies made art. The kaleidoscopic third movement and occasionally violent finale did not wholly wash the work’s traces of imperialism into oblivion.
Instead of a traditional four-movement form, Berg’s Op. 3 quartet has merely two. But despite both its structure and its atonality — and particularly when paired with the Ravel — the piece hardly sounds like a radical break with the past. Both pieces, for example, are spattered with adamant lyricism, and both incorporate elements of sonata form.
Especially in the hands of Emerson, Berg’s Op. 3 explodes from a fierce little nugget: an initially tiny and fast five-note motif. It is cliche to say that Berg was able to create this atonal, large-scale instrumental work because of the organicism of his compositional technique, or the way everything seems to grow intrinsically and logically from earlier music. Friday’s performance proved that cliches contain grains of truth, and my favorite moment happened at the end of the second movement, when the quartet recapitulated a theme from the first and somehow made it sound simultaneously both familiar and transformed.
Since Debussy’s G-Minor quartet heavily influenced Ravel’s, chronologically it would have made sense to pair the two French pieces in the first half. But the chosen order afforded a cyclic feel to the program. There were many standout moments amid Debussy’s four movements, such as the gorgeous viola solos in the third. In the rhythmic pizzicatos of the second movement and the quasi-fugal passage in the finale, the handoffs between players were remarkable. Listening to the timbral consistency across the group’s different instruments is a bit like watching myriad colors melt into each other within a single shimmering stream of oil.
Violinist Philip Setzer explained not only why the group was seated (Emerson is known for performing standing up) but also the notable disparity between the ensemble’s energetic music and seemingly lethargic stage exits: unfortunately, Setzer was suffering from a sore knee. But this did not prevent them from playing a hotly requested encore. They chose the third movement of Grieg’s G-Minor quartet. Setzer also explained that — just as Debussy’s piece influenced Ravel’s — Grieg’s piece influenced Debussy’s.
The rich, resonant harmonies in Grieg’s movement made Debussy’s affinity for it easy to understand. Grieg’s focus on sound quality over classical voice-leading antedates Debussy’s impressionistic quartet by about 15 years, and Berg’s atonal piece by more than 30. Indeed, Emerson’s entire program made tonality and atonality seem less like rigid binaries and more like flexible poles delineating a colorful and fluid spectrum. While the evening’s four pieces might occupy different points thereupon, all four were radiant stars.