For many years, the Emerson Quartet have basked in lavish praise. But observing them in concert is an unsettling experience, thanks to a couple of gimmicks that might suit them in the recording studio, but work less well in the concert hall. Three of them choose to play standing up; this leaves the cellist at a considerable disadvantage, both in terms of volume and eye contact with his colleagues. Time and again in this three-concert series, David Finckel peered upwards, seeking some recognition – which was rarely forthcoming, except occasionally from violist Lawrence Dutton.
The other gimmick is the swapping of violin roles: in each concert, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer share out the goods more or less equally. If both were undeniably "leaders", this might be taken as a misguided attempt at democracy. But the result is more a question of two "number twos" having a go at leading (with frequent sour tuning), leaving a general effect of a leaderless quartet.
This sold-out, three-concert series was anchored by Beethoven's three Razumovsky quartets Op.59, prefaced by a contemporary work, an unexceptional arrangement by Mozart of a fugue from Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues, and several of Bach's contrapuncti from his Art of Fugue. The Bach/Mozart items were of purely academic interest – any student could have written what Mozart did, and as for the Art of Fugue, it is not primarily a concert work but an – albeit extraordinary – treatise. Only in the third concert did the Emerson Quartet suggest any hint of varying vibrato and tone, in a cursory acknowledgement of "period" style.
Of the three contemporary works, both Wolfgang Rihm (in his fourth quartet) and Bright Sheng (a British premiere of his fifth quartet, the "Miraculous") created clarity out of dissonant material through relatively conventional rhythmic writing. Kaija Saariaho's static and repetitive Terra Memoria (also a UK premiere) concentrated on harsh dissonance, loud, scratchy bow sounds on the bridge, as well as high trills and tremolos – a demanding listen.
After a less than riveting Op.59 No 1, Nos. 2 and 3 found the quartet beginning to eye each other. And eventually, some great playing was achieved.
The concerts will be broadcast 9-11 January, on BBC Radio 3Reuse content