The piedmont of North Carolina has frequently welcomed visits by the Emerson String Quartet since they burst upon the national chamber music scene with an audacious marathon performance of Bartók’s six string quartets in Carnegie Hall in 1979. They are well known as a fiercely virtuosic string quartet, however the enterprising ensemble took advantage of violist Lawrence Dutton’s medical leave to present the remaining players in a rare configuration, as a string trio, and as a piano quartet. Balance between strings and keyboard is critical and few pianists have racked up as much experience in this role as the Emerson’s guest, Menahem Pressler, founding member of the Beaux Arts Piano Trio.
The opening Secrest Artist Series concert took place September 14 in Brendle Recital Hall on the bucolic campus of Wake Forest University. The house was packed and about 50 people had to be seated on either side of the stage. The series’ pre-concert talks are always worth attending. Versatile violinist and musical faculty member Jacqui Carrasco focused on both Mozart’s and Brahms’ exploration of texture and played illustrative excerpts from CDs.
About Mozart and the “divertimento,” the 1955 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music generalizes that the composer seemed to use the term for “a suite in more than four movements.”
To most experienced music lovers, the late eighteenth century form is “elevated background music,” multiple movements based on dances used to entertain at a social function. The Divertimento in E-flat for Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 563 belies that definition. It is the finest string trio ever composed, written just after the last three symphonies in September of 1788, and is on that same exalted level. It was intended for Mozart’s fellow Mason and patron Michael Puchberg. To offset any “thinness” of sound, the composer used double-stops at a few points to create a more dense quartet-like tone. To heighten contrast in the andante variation movement, he introduces the theme in a doubled octave, two-part harmony that makes the real three-voice section sound fuller. All six movements abound in wonderful melodies comparable to those in his operas and the first two movements are in the composer’s “learned”style.
Brahms was still wary of Beethoven’s shadow when he composed his three piano quartets. As Carrasco pointed out in her commentary, the composer was being radical by exploring the range of possible instrumental textures. Of the set, his Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 finds him in his most unbuttoned mood with its wild and rowdy concluding Rondo in Gypsy Style. The string writing is full and lush. The piano quartets are seldom heard outside of music festivals or conservatories. Some pianists launch into Op. 25 like it was a piano concerto, drowning the strings which have to strain and force their tone. This frequent fault inspired Arnold Schönberg to arrange it for full orchestra, including a notorious xylophone.
When in quartet configuration, Emerson violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer exchange first chair duties. For this concert, Drucker took up a splendid sounding viola that had a warm tone and projected its sound very well. The full robust sound produced by cellist David Finckel is well known from both his quartet appearances and his tours as a duo with his wife, pianist Wu Han.
The three Emerson string players turned in a superb performance of the Mozart K.563. I have sometimes felt that, as a quartet, their approach to Mozart and Haydn can be too rushed and relentless. Tempos were perfect on this occasion with the music given room to unfold and breathe naturally. This trio is a favorite with violists, who are given every chance to shine, and Drucker turned in a glowing performance, blending perfectly when apt and soaring gloriously when given the lead.
Pressler’s decades of chamber music experience paid dividends in one of the most perfectly balanced performances of the Brahms’ Op. 25 that I have heard. String intonation was excellent when they matched the piano and instrumental dynamics were carefully nuanced. The muted strings in the Intermezzo movement were magically set against Pressler’s crystalline treble. As a generous encore, the Andante from Brahms’ Op. 60 was given. “A love song for Clara Schumann” Pressler speculated, and meant to go “from our hearts to yours.”