Review: Emerson String Quartet

Oct. 23, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

In August 2021, the Emerson String Quartet announced its coming retirement, which will mark a generational turning of the page.

The Emerson, founded in 1976 at New York’s Juilliard School, soon set a standard for US quartets, producing a collective sound that is room-filling, even in fairly large spaces, and adopting a straightfoward interpretive stance that can accommodate most of the quartet literature, with especially rewarding results in the works of moderns such as Bartók and Shostakovich.

The group’s impact on audiences and fellow musicians has been substantial and consistent, thanks to a heavy touring schedule over the decades, plenty of teaching and coaching, also to good timing: The foursome hit their musical stride just as the introduction of digital sound and compact discs led to a boom in classical recordings. The Emerson made many, and quite a few have been reference versions since they were released.

The quartet – violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins – is spending this season on an extensive, international farewell tour. The group’s performance in the Rennolds Chamber Concerts at Virginia Commonwealth University, its fifth appearance in the series, was an early stop on the tour.

Its Richmond program – Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 12; Ravel’s Quartet in F major, George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Dvořák’s Quartet in A flat major, Op. 105 – is one of the more conservative prepared for the tour, but proved varied enough in expression and sound texture to make lasting last impressions. Chief among them, well-integrated, enveloping string tone, at times almost orchestral in scale when heard in a space the size of VCU’s 500-seat Vlahcevic Concert Hall.

The rewards of the group’s unmannered approach to music-making were most gratifying in the Mendelssohn and Dvořák quartets, early and late products of the romantic era and, in a way, opposite sides of the romantic coin.

The Mendelssohn quartet, his first, written when he was 20, is an unrequited-love letter, a smolderingly passionate, yearning work that stretches without quite breaking away from classical form. The Dvořák, the last quartet he completed, may be his most classical, not without soulful melodies and folksy dance rhythms, but mainly focused on building musical structures from declarative motifs, as Beethoven did. In the Mendelssohn, the heart moves the mind; in the Dvořák, the mind rules the heart.

The Emerson’s treatment of the two works made that contrast clear, but not italicized or overplayed. The ensemble, with Drucker playing first violin, brought out the sweet lyricism of Mendelssohn’s tunes with rich but never cloying string sonority. In the Dvořák, with Setzer as the leader, the group’s tone was more assertive, at times almost angular, but still attuned to romantic expressiveness and the composer’s evocation of Czech folk song and dance.

The foursome turned to the comfortably lyrical Dvořák in an encore, “I Wander Often Past Yonder House,” the seventh in his “Cypresses” set of songs arranged for string quartet.

The French school of string tone production, texture and coloration – of which the Ravel quartet is exhibit A in the chamber literature – is not the easiest of fits for musicians who come out of most US schooling and mainstream performing tradition. They generally play with warmer, more rounded tone and richer ensemble sound than the French, whose tone is leaner, more focused with tighter vibrato, more differentiated among instruments in an ensemble, altogether more sinewy.

In this performance of the Ravel, the Emerson met the French style a bit more than halfway, bolder and brawnier than a French quartet typically would sound, as impulsive in attack but less fleet in pacing, suitably sensitized to the score’s intricate weave of sound textures and wide palette of tone colors.

Walker, longest-lived of the first great generation of Black American composers (he died at 96 in 2018), is most widely known for his “Lyric for Strings,” dating from 1946. Like Samuel Barber’s more familiar Adagio, written about 10 years earlier, it was originally the slow movement of a string quartet, later expanded to a string orchestration. Both are elegiac in tone, Walker’s more biographically, in remembrance of his grandmother.

Playing Walker’s original version, the Emerson inevitably sounded starker and more expressively pointed than one would hear in the orchestration, but no less emotionally impactful.