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Still Hungry for Brahms

October 30, 2007

It makes a neat, string-quartet Rorschach test. You've just played all three Brahms quartets at a single sitting. Quick: What do you do for an encore? A conventionally minded, reasonably sane quartet would pick something light and attractive from around the same time — the finale of Dvořák’s "American" Quartet, say, or a transcription of one of the Brahms Hungarian Dances. A more offbeat one might go for something goofy from farther afield (the polka from Shostakovich's Age of Gold?), or something counterintuitively slow and sustained (Puccini's Crisantemi? Gershwin's Lullaby?). The wisest would probably play nothing at all.
Sunday night at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, four curtain calls after the conclusion of its San Francisco Performances-sponsored Brahmsathon, the Emerson Quartet ventured a yet-different answer. Emerson violinist Philip Setzer announced that the quartet would play a piece about a hundred years old, one written 12 years after Brahms' death.

Emerson Quartet

Photo by Mitch Jenkins

It was ... the fourth of Anton Webern's Fünf Sätze (Five movements), Op. 5. Brilliant.

I could almost read the players’ thoughts: So, a hundred minutes' worth of incessantly intense, minutely argued, late-Romantic chamber music isn't enough for you? Still hungry, are you? Let's show you where that train was heading in a few years' time. Here's some more food for thought for you to chew on, on your way home.

To judge by the snippets of audience conversation I caught as I headed out the door, there was surprise and not a little bemusement among the listeners. (Not any hint of offense, which was good; audiences don't always take kindly to being fed even two minutes of Webern that they hadn't signed on for, but no one sounded hostile on Sunday.) Me? I felt like cheering. Not often does an ensemble have the opportunity to make so many different good points simultaneously, let alone take advantage of it. It was like watching someone bring off an audacious pun. Except, of course, that it was planned — the Webern was already on the stands at the beginning of the concert.
More Brahms on Tap
San Francisco Performances is running a subseries of massive Brahms programs this season, what with the Capuçon brothers and Nicholas Angelich performing the three piano trios on a single program next February, and Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis tackling the three violin sonatas on another in April. Of the three projects, the Emerson's with the string quartets is arguably the most challenging.

Brahms the string-quartet composer is a sterner, more austere fellow than you'd guess from most of his other chamber music. The two Op. 51 quartets — the first he allowed to see daylight, after supposedly destroying a couple of dozen earlier attempts — are grim and closely argued stuff.

The other, Op. 67, is not at all grim (though the restless third movement is disturbing, and disturbed), but it too is closely argued — intricately, obsessively so, in the way that prompted all those contemporaneous complaints about Brahms the desiccated, calculating master-brain. All three are marvelous music, just not the sort (like, say, the string sextets) that goes out of its way to hug you. And they need to be played, and listened to, in a frame of mind that's hard to sustain for the length of a concert.

The Emersons were clearly not intent on palliating the music's severity, except insofar as their vibrant collective sound served as an aural pleasure in itself. If anything, they might have eased up a bit to good effect, particularly in Op. 51/2 and Op. 67, where Philip Setzer played first violin. Setzer seemed a shade unbending as leader. Opportunities for rhythmic flexibility, as in the outer movements of Op. 51/2, didn't seem to interest him much. And surely something more kittenish is meant in the third of Op. 67's finale variations than what we heard. Eugene Drucker, leading Op. 51/1 on the recital’s second half, was more accommodating, shading and bending his line with more moment-to-moment attention and freedom.

The Emerson manner combines great power with great technical cleanliness, so that despite the considerable volume of sound, you can generally hear everything that's going on. In Brahms that can be an mixed blessing, given that there is almost always a lot going on — too much to feel comfortable absorbing all at once — and quartets usually tweak the balances a bit so as to give the ear an obvious main line.

The Emersons seldom do this, and at places in Sunday's concert I almost felt I was listening to freakishly updated consort music. Not that I objected; the reason all that inner-voice detail is in there in the first place is that it's fascinating. But then, these are pieces I know very well, and I can afford the fun of following all the voices without losing my place in the music. I am not so sure that a listener coming newly to the music would have had such a good time.

Op. 51/1 might have suited the Emersons best, with its gritty, C-minor intensity in the outer movements. (I believe it came earlier into their repertoire than the other two, being part of a set of eight quartets the ensemble recorded for Book-of-the-Month Records all the way back in the mid-1980s.) But Op. 67, with its complicated rhythmic games, showed them to almost as much advantage. In the first movement, the various cross-accents, hemiolas, and threes-against-fours were all sources of obvious in-group amusement. The more pensive Op. 51/2 suffered a little in comparison, though the finale (hemiolas again) was terrific.
Three Takes on a Movement
Best of all, maybe, were the quartets' three third movements, all of them "character pieces" of which the characters are peculiar and pungent. Op. 51/1's is an odd Allegretto with a painful, limping tread and a pervasive gloom; Op. 51/2's, a stylized quasi-minuetto with a feather-light Trio; Op. 67's, a ghostly, restless fantasia led by the viola, with the other instruments muted. The Emersons got inside each of them brilliantly, conjuring up three strikingly varied atmospheres.

Lawrence Dutton, the violist, deserved outsize credit here — not only for his starring role in Op. 67 (with its splendidly passionate cadenzas) but also for the moody, unusually forward viola line in Op. 51/1 and a two-bar lick in the Trio of Op. 51/2 that I have never heard pulled off so cheekily. The man was a monster violist when the Emersons were formed 30 years ago, and he is one still.

Actually, the whole concert seemed viola-heavy, in terms of the balance between Dutton and the cellist, David Finckel. That might have been an artifact of where I was sitting, rather than a conscious balance choice. Certainly, whenever Finckel had a leading role, he was his old supremely sonorous self.

And as ever with the Emersons, all the texture's momentary alliances were attended to with magnificent skill. The unanimity the quartet brings to bowstrokes and the like when all four players have the same material is impressive, but it's the way any two of them can form a Siamese-twinned duo at the drop of a hat that's seriously remarkable. After a few decades together, quartet players do tend to get to know the insides of each other's heads, but even then seldom like this.

Oh, and the Webern? A stunning performance, two minutes of spectral quiverings and painfully intense gaps that the startled audience apprehended in absolute silence, with a degree of concentration that I'm not sure they would have given it had it appeared on the printed program. "A novel in a breath," Arnold Schoenberg wrote, describing another of Webern's quartet works, and so this was.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.