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White-Hot, and New

February 12, 2008

Reputations are funny things. In the classical music world, technical virtuosity can lead to charges of superficiality or emotional coldness. Some listeners, especially opera fans of a particular ilk, prefer guts and heart to good intonation and steady tone. The great Jascha Heifetz had a reputation for playing with more technical perfection than musical soul; today, both Maurizio Pollini and the Emerson String Quartet have sometimes been labeled cold.

Emerson String Quartet

Photo by Mitch Jenkins

But the Emerson's annual concert at Stanford Lively Arts last Wednesday utterly belied this reputation. The quartet played with white-hot intensity and complete commitment, in a splendid program consisting of three 20th-century works and a pair of quartets recently composed for the group. Yes, there was plenty of virtuosity, but also enough passion and musical eloquence for any two concerts by a lesser group.

The concert included a quartet and a set of duets by Bohuslav Martinů, a composer who ought to be played more. His three-movement String Quartet No. 3, H. 183, written in 1929, opened. While the program notes discuss the quartet’s French aspects — the composer spent many years in France and studied with Albert Roussel — the surface is considerably more Czech than French. The first movement virtually bursts into life, with a complex texture of tremolo and pizzicato plus a kind of talkative rhythmic interplay among the instruments that would be familiar to anyone who has ever heard a Janáček opera. The movement makes a great arc, in a loose sonata form that ends much as it begins.

The dense textures and rhythmic liveliness continue throughout the piece. The slow second movement is remarkable for its textural variety, with a great deal of parallel motion among the parts, as well as the major chord with which it closes, one truly shocking in the context of the work's rugged nontonal harmony to that point. The driven last movement uses rhythmically motoric opening and closing sections to bookend a lighter, charming middle section, and finishes up with a mad, climactic accelerando. The Emerson played throughout with a kind of jagged beauty and depth of sound that was entirely appropriate for this work.

Violist Lawrence Dutton was much in evidence, in beautifully played solos in the first two movements of the quartet. He took center stage, with violinist Philip Setzer, for Martinů’s Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, H. 313. The Madrigals are structured like a sonata, with rapid outer movements and a more melancholy middle movement. The opening movement might be called "Trills, Thrills," while the slow movement, which was played with beautifully veiled tone, conjured up sunrise and birdsongs. The last movement galloped along, with various broad country tunes. Setzer and Dutton played with great dash and brio, and the piece provided an enchanting break from the prevailing seriousness of the program.
Different Strokes
The two new works on the program, Bright Sheng's String Quartet No. 5 ("The Miraculous") and Kaija Saariaho's Terra Memoria, used some similar technical means to achieve considerably different ends. Both are single-movement works that deploy the full range of modern string-playing technique, and both use a certain amount of thematic and motivic repetition to provide structure. For these two pieces, the Emerson's sound appropriately became leaner and more astringent than in the Martinů.

"The Miraculous" takes its title from Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, a work that Sheng has conducted. Sheng has even used some of Bartók's compositional techniques uses in the string quartet. Two themes predominate — one more Asian in character, the other more European. At times, the various instruments move in different metrical and rhythmic worlds. Midway through the piece, Sheng achieves a point of stasis, as the players settle into sliding about on their instruments, with silken, hushed tone. Toward the end, the piece becomes more contrapuntal, and by the end, the two themes are reconciled with each other.

On first hearing, "The Miraculous" seems to have a problem of proportions, as a couple of sections near the end contain too many repetitions, unbalancing the whole. Still, it's a lovely piece, and, on this occasion, a crowd-pleaser. Perhaps Sheng will rework the piece, or perhaps its proportions will sound better on second, third, and fourth hearings.
Held in Memory
Saariaho's Terra Memoria has no such problem. This quartet, the composer's second, is dedicated to those who have departed life. Saariaho's comments about the work provide something of a road map for its shifting moods and musical fragments: Those who are gone are complete, their lives finished, while those who survive experience reminders of the departed and changing feelings about them. The musical materials in the quartet reflect these emotional relationships.

Terra Memoria divides roughly into four sections. The first begins at the threshold of audibility, then, surprisingly, slips into a bluesy, walking-bass bit of Americana, where it hangs in harmonic stasis for its first minute or two. Melodic fragments repeat and the piece slides into its second section. The music increases greatly in intensity, almost wailing. After a wrenching downward slide comes the relief of a short, grand pause. Relief gives way, in the next section, to fluttering harmonics and a theme played with almost unbearably sweet tone.

The mood builds through the next several minutes to an astonishing level of intensity, with tremolos leading to a long section of keening, wailing sound as sharp as razors against the eardrums, or the skin. After a long, eloquent unison, each member of the quartet drops out, one of the first themes is played again, and finally the work concludes. It's a masterpiece of great beauty and depth, and so temporally disorienting that my concert companion and I thought it had lasted vastly different lengths. (Neither of us was right.)

Saariaho and Sheng both have connections with the music of Béla Bartók. The form of Terra Memoria is related to the Hungarian master's arch forms. Bartók, who was also a famous ethnomusicologist, collected folk music from all over and incorporated much of it into his own compositions. Sheng's piece "The Miraculous" also uses different national styles of music.

The Emerson Quartet appropriately ended its program with a broadly paced, graceful performance of Bartók's 1926 String Quartet No. 3, a fine close for a bravura program. This terse, eloquent work is only about 15 minutes long, yet it encompasses much of the language and instrumental technique of the 20th-century string quartet, and indeed sounded a close relation to all that had come before.

The audience wouldn't let the Emersons go, and at their second curtain call they played a brief, perfect encore: the fourth of Anton Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5.

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook, and blogs about classical music and opera at Iron Tongue of Midnight.