Emerson String Quartet is pleasingly unpredictable at Smithsonian

May 9, 2011

The trademark sound of the Emerson String Quartet is long on muscularity and precision, but sometimes short on warmth and subtlety. At their season finale in the Smithsonian Resident Associates series at the National Mu­seum of Natural History on Sunday night, the foursome was true to its strengths but also showed a surprising and pleasing unpredictability.

In the Washington premiere of American composer Pierre Jalbert’s fifth quartet, created for the Emerson and debuted in Houston last month, the sound was rarely pushed to the edge. A vocabulary of otherworldly effects — gently squealing harmonics like electronic feedback, spidery glissandi, microtonal bends, all with Eugene Drucker’s pure, sweet tone on first violin at the fore — were handled with consummate virtuosity but always at the service of the overall musical shape, inspired by the migrations of French-speaking people to and within the New World. The group attacked the anxious, machine-like scherzo (“Upheaval”) with strident accuracy but also gave an understated, lush radiance to the third-movement variations on an Acadian folk song.

Mendelssohn’s Andante and Scherzo, Op. 81, movements for an unfinished string quartet, had a similar golden sound, gossamer-smooth even in the fast sections, especially when Lawrence Dutton’s canorous viola was in the lead. Only in Beethoven’s epic late quartet, Op. 131, did the Emerson go back to its default settings, as it were.

Scholar Joseph Kerman, in an in-depth study of the work, called it “uncanny,” music that was “meticulously crafted to make it aberrant, eccentric, grotesque.” In the Emerson’s interpretation, already familiar from the quartet’s recently re-released complete Beethoven set, there was little to surprise. The fast movements were abrasive, with first violinist Philip Setzer too often just under pitch, and Beethoven’s thicket of expressive markings were adhered to with a thoroughness bordering on the clinical.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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