CLASSICAL Emerson Quartet / Barbican

They brought Bartok to a boil last year, but Beethoven fell flat.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Poised beneath a warmly coloured backdrop, the Emerson Quartet made piquant music of Beethoven's D major String Quartet, Op 18 No 3. It was a taut affair, alert to every modulation, consistently incisive and elegantly articulated. Furthermore, the Quartet's instruments enhanced the effect, though Philip Setzer's Lupot sounded rather brighter in tone than Eugene Drucker's Stradivarius. Setzer led the first half, swapping to second fiddle after the interval (ie, for the first "Razumovsky" Quartet) although if any one member warranted special praise, it was cellist David Finckel, a strong player with a full, vibrant tone beautifully sustained. Violist Lawrence Dutton was the most visibly demonstrative of the four, swaying to the rhythm of the phrase, while Drucker kept his eyes firmly on the music.

Nothing seemed left to chance, a wise decision given that tempos were generally swift, even a mite breathless. Beethoven marked his slow movement Andante con moto, meaning "don't dawdle". The Emersons took due note, but switching to their new Deutsche Grammophon CD of the piece - recorded two years ago but only just released - revealed a level of repose lacking from Wednesday's performance. The Scherzo, too, seemed rushed and, again, comparisons with the recording suggest impatience on stage. The F major Quartet is Op 18's strongest component and features an anguished slow movement that was inspired, we're told, by the burial-vault scene from Romeo and Juliet. It's marked "Adagio affettuoso e appassionato" but although the Emersons brought great visceral excitement to the music's more urgent episodes, there was no sense of danger, no necessary risk-taking: it was all too far from the edge. Likewise in the first "Razumovsky" Quartet where the hilarious Scherzo spins a dazzling sequence of musical one-liners and the Adagio cries its soulful confession. On one occasion, Drucker almost broke the barriers of propriety (that was during the latter half of the slow movement), but elsewhere I sensed the same predictable story of earnestness, accuracy and applied charm.

It seems palpably unfair to criticise playing that, if taken at face value, has so much to offer - certainly in terms of polish, virtuosity and finesse. The Emersons are fine musicians: they have impeccable taste; they phrase intelligently and they make a beautiful sound. And yet, somehow, their Beethoven never caught fire, at least not on this first lap of their complete cycle. I could hardly believe that here was the group that brought Bartok to the boil last summer (QEH). Perhaps Beethoven poses them a more personal challenge; perhaps they need to cast off the formalities of stage performance and ease into private dialogue where, away from the public's gaze, they can "do the Beethovenian thing" without any inhibitions. But, of course, it's early days yet and they could quite easily loosen up for the rest of the series.