Classical review: Emerson Quartet - The fab four on firm friendship, and the vacancy of lost love


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The Independent Culture

On 8 July 1917, far removed from the carnage of Flanders and the unravelling of the Kerensky Offensive, Leos Janacek noted a fragment of melody for a woman identified as "Mrs C". After a lifetime of infatuations and infidelities, the 63-year-old Czech composer was falling in love for the last time, in the Moravian spa town of Luhacovice. But the initial "C" (for Camilla) was wrong. The inflexions of this scrap of music were inspired by the chatter of Kamila Stosslova, a 25-year-old married woman.

The Emerson Quartet's Queen Elizabeth Hall recital told the stories of two composers' affairs with unattainable women, narrowing the century-wide span of the Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise season to a series of real or dreamed interiors. One is the nursery where the elderly Janacek imagined Kamila cradling his child in the string quartet Intimate Letters (1928). Another is the library where Alban Berg stole a kiss from Hanna Fuchs, the woman whose initials are interwoven with his in the complex codes of the Lyric Suite (1926). Divorced and remarried in 1924, Bartok was the odd man out, influenced by Berg in his String Quartet No 3 (1927), but more attracted to the rhythmic imperatives of folk-dance than to musical confessions.

Janacek waited 10 years for a kiss from Kamila, diverting his passion into hundreds of letters. In Intimate Letters, the words run out. The first phrase is a frank declaration of erotic intent, the opening gambit in a tireless succession of embraces. If the operas Janacek wrote after 1917 idealised Kamila, Intimate Letters idealises the potency of the composer. In the dry acoustic of the QEH, the hi-gloss glare of the Emerson Quartet's sound was softened. After 34 years of playing together, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, viola-player Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel anticipate changes of emphasis, colour and tempo that other quartets would have to listen for.

This familiarity has its disadvantages: the silvered bowing, brusque pizzicato and vibrant dynamics of the Bartok and Janacek impressed, but ideas were seldom allowed to breathe. The smiling silkiness of Finckel's sound in the first fragment of the Lyric Suite hinted at a more patient approach, though the whispered confidences of the Allegro misterioso were delivered at frantic speed. I left marvelling at the way Berg finishes each movement with the ellipses that hang in the air at the end of love, and longing for less dazzle and more time.

Charles Hazlewood's survey of music and verse associated, sometimes erroneously, with the First World War, laboured under the impossible title The Death of Nostalgia. While the actor Laurence Fox brought rough glamour to poems by Hardy, Owen, Brooke and Sassoon, Hazlewood and the BBC Concert Orchestra (Queen Elizabeth Hall, London **) coated Holst's Somerset Rhapsody, Butterworth's orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad and Julius Harrisons' Worcestershire Suite with an even sheen of generic wistfulness. Vaughan Williams' A Pastoral Symphony was similarly glossed until Rebecca Evans' wordless lament in the fourth movement – a much-needed reminder that what was being mourned in this work was a generation of men, not a chocolate-box image of the British countryside.

Critic's Choice

Ian Bostridge joins Michael Seal and the CBSO to sing Britten's song cycle Les Illuminations at Birmingham's Symphony Hall (Wed), flanked by Elgar's In the South and Enigma Variations. In London, at Kings Place, the Schubert Ensemble marks its 30th birthday playing music by, er, Schubert (Thu), Enescu (Fri) and Huw Watkins and others (Sat).