The Emerson String Quartet was firing on all sixteen pistons (four strings each, on four instruments) Saturday evening at their concert in Reynolds Industries Theater on the Duke campus. Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, who alternate as first violin, along with Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello, dazzled the audience with the smooth purr of some rarely heard Dvořák to the roar of some of the most modern of the modernist as well as some classy bits in between. After more than thirty years of playing and recording standard-setting and award-winning performances spanning the spectrum of the repertoire, they consistently display their brilliant technical and musical expertise. They have long been favorites of the Chamber Arts Society and Duke Performances and the concert was sold out weeks before the scheduled performance.

They began with the mellow hum of the romantic genius, Antonin Dvořák. Cypresses is a set of 18 love songs originally composed to vocal texts and dedicated to Josefina Cermáková, a piano student with whom he, at age 24, was infatuated. Alas the attraction was not mutual, and most of the songs are filled with unrequited longing; some are beautiful with an underlying pleading, and some show signs of hopefulness, but there is not much hint of the triumphant joy of fulfillment. Some of the arrangements Dvořák made for string quartet have the viola pouring out the pleading, and the cello and viola in a couple of places are strummed like the lute of a troubadour. These were beautiful displays of romantic angst and a pleasure to hear. Six were played to open the concert and six more began the second half of the concert after the intermission.  By the way, some years later Dvořák married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna.

With this warm and wistful feeling in our ears, we were set up for some of the wildest experimental music of the first half of the twentieth century: Anton von Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 9, dating from 1913. The musical world was still trying to figure out where to go after Wagner and Mahler, who had been long-winded and specific in their romantic fullness. Webern’s idea was that once a statement had been made there was no point in repeating it or developing it further. Therefore his music is pithy, compact and, consequently, brief and to the point. Whereas Wagner was detailed and precise, telling all, Webern is all implication and suggestion – and that’s it. The whole work contains only fifty-seven measures and takes just about three minutes to perform. The music jerks, shifts, changes from one note to the next and defies analysis. Arnold Schoenberg is quoted in the program notes (by Drucker): “These pieces can only be understood by those who believe that music can say things that can only be expressed by music.” I think I know what he means, but I can’t explain it. There were moments in the Emerson’s stunning performance that I wanted to linger over, to reflect on, to soak up, but they were gone – as in all performance art – to that place where we treasure keepsakes.

The music of Sergei Prokofiev lies somewhere between Dvořák and Webern, but probably closer to the former. His String Quartet No. 1, in B minor, Op. 50, was premiered just 17 years after the Webern, but is a very different musical language. The first movement is an allegro which is lively and tinged with sardonic wit, typical of Prokofiev. The middle movement begins with a brief, rather dark andante before launching into a vivace with a skipping sharp-angled melody, interrupted briefly with a cello solo, exquisitely played in Durham, before dancing playfully on. The third movement, Andante, flowed like honey with two subtle mood changes that did not stop the flow but redirected it modestly and continued until the piece ended by fading away into another world. Always at home in whatever style they address, the Emerson Quartet gave this music life and meaning of rich dimensions.

As mentioned above, after intermission, we heard the second set of six songs from Dvořák’s Cypresses. The program then closed with the String Quartet No. 3 by Béla Bartók. First performed in 1927, this piece is, I would say, closer to Webern than to Dvořák (the dates mean nothing). One of the masterpieces of the early twentieth century, it opens doors and explores paths that composers still travel. In terms of texture, form, development, and harmony, this and the other five of Bartok’s quartets set standards of mammoth proportions. This quartet is in one movement, divided into four sections. It is compact, yet fully developed. It is brief, yet packed with drama and satisfying completeness.

In response to enthusiastic applause, the quartet returned to play one of the movements from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. There is nothing that can so beautifully clear the air and elevate the spirit as Bach. It was ideal.

Audi recently announced from their headquarters in Wolfsburg that their new 16-cylinder sport coupe will be in production in two years. They will build only 500 and they will go for an estimated $400,000 each to those who want over 600 bhp under the hood and an absolutely smooth ride at over 200 mph. Most cars are built to get you where you want to go safely, economically, and efficiently. Then there are those which go way beyond that. A classical string quartet is something quite different indeed, but the analogy is applicable. In this program we were taken along on an exciting ride filled with a variety of views, some pastoral and charming, some not often seen, some of which whizzed by and made our hearts beat faster, and all in style and class that’s at the top of the line.