Emerson Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

 

The programme could not have been more felicitously constructed: three Central European string quartets, composed during a two-year period in the Twenties when Modernism had just found its voice.

And the biographical congruence between two of them was remarkable. Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite was inspired by his infatuation with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, but, though she reciprocated his feelings, their respective marriages kept things chaste. Leos Janacek’s ‘Intimate Letters’ was inspired by his hopeless passion for the much younger Kamila Stosslova, also chastely married. ‘Behind every note,’ he wrote to her, ‘you are there, alive, close, radiant with love.’ Meanwhile Berg was writing to Hanna, ‘Every note is consciously dedicated to you’.

Obsessed with codes, Berg wove mystic numbers plus his and Hanna’s conjoined initials into the fabric of his work, and he was also operating within a 12-note structure. This should have led to arid results, but the miracle is that, rather than sounding intellectualised, his quartet is pervaded by a warm-blooded lyricism.

The Emerson Quartet have long been celebrated for their technical perfection, but what they did with this work was staggering even by their high standards. The descending-in-parallel melodic lines of the Andante amoroso - and the scampering sotto voce harmonics of the Allegro misterioso - were preternaturally precise. The great musicologist Theodor Adorno memorably characterised the work’s rapt conclusion thus: ‘The viola alone remains, but it is not even allowed to expire, to die. It must play forever; except that we can no longer hear it.’ That is how it came across here, reverberating with sweet insistence in the mind.

With its atmosphere of Slavic enchantment, Janacek’s ‘Intimate Letters’ quartet emanates from the gut rather than the intellect, and it wears its passion on its sleeve in every bar. The Emersons played it beautifully, but the emotion felt refracted, as though their fastidious professionalism interposed a screen between us and the exquisite pain of the work itself. Bartok’s String Quartet No 3, which completed the programme, got a superbly controlled performance, but one missed the fury of the music’s attack, and its sheer peasant rawness: are the Emersons now just too civilised? At all events, change is on the way: this was cellist David Finckel’s last concert with the quartet after 34 years, and the young British cellist Paul Watkins will take his place. Congratulations, Mr Watkins, and good luck.

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