Classical Music: Stirred by a quartet in the mix

Classical music: Emerson String Quartet Barbican, London
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Classical music: Emerson String


Barbican, London

The string quartet is a good mixer, but not necessarily with the double bass. Though violins, viola and cello go well with clarinet and piano, and with pairs of their own kind, relations with their deep-voiced brother are distinctly hybrid.

So why has Edgar Meyer (b. Oklahoma, 1960), recently composed a new Quintet for himself and the Emerson String Quartet? The audience at the Barbican last Tuesday had to wait until after the interval to find out, but was hardly disappointed by what came before. Part of the year-long Inventing America Festival, and one of the Barbican's Great Performers Series, the Emerson's programme was an intriguing mixture of American themes and flavours in the form of Dvorak's Quartet No 12 and the Second Quartet of Charles Ives. In one piece, themes redolent of the Black American music admired by a Czech composer visiting America; in the other, by a true American original, a medley of popular tunes with "manly" dissonant sounds to frighten off musical sissies.

There was much to admire in the Emerson's Dvorak, such as cellist David Finckel's long, drawn-out melodies in the slow movement, and the general sense of ensemble created. The bearer of several cognomens over the years, the Quartet No 12 in F is now known as the American. But the "Viola" would be no less apt, the quartet abounding in perky solos for the instrument.

In the Ives Second Quartet, with its "Discussion's" first movement, and "Arguments" second movement, separate lines were subsumed in the web of hefty polyphony, tunes like Dixie Hail Columbia and Turkey in the Straw poking their saucy faces above the atonal parapet. In the gruff ending of the second movement, the Emersons were magnificent. To the ending of the first, accident (in the form of a stray whistler in the Green Room) gave a magnificently Ivesian ambience. The finale's strenuous polyrhythms were sternly handled by the quartet, relaxing into radiant conclusion.

And so to Meyer's Quintet, in style restrained and classical, echoing past masters Ravel and Copland, yet absolutely vibrant. Meyer is a stunning bass player whose steady, clear tone contains no unwholesome vibrato. Clearly intimate with his bass and the nuances of technique, Meyer's discovered new sounds in no way avant-garde. The result, as in Mozart's Prussian Quartets, is a work of bass-part plus, garnished with snippets of popular music. Hence the cello-bass boogie in the second movement scherzo, violins adding a touch of bluegrass. Couched in more lyrical forms, the first and third movements offered noble sentiments. The piece, compelling proof of the power of bass and string quartet, demands a successor. Tuesday's only surprise was the dynamic finale, an outburst of trills for all instruments, not receiving an encore.