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Union: Emerson and Pro Arte Quartets

Beethoven: Quartet in F Minor, Op.95
Bartok: Quartet No. 2
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-Flat Major, Op.20

Emerson Quartet
Eugene Drucker, violin
Philip Setzer, violin
Lawrence Dutton, viola
David Finckel, cello
Pro Arte Quartet
Norman Paulu, violin
Jae-Kyung Kim, violin
Sally Chisholm, viola
Parry Karp, cello


Friday evening's concert by the Emerson Quartet and the Pro Arte Quartet at the Union Theater was a major triumph, but it was really much more than that. Not only did it afford the extremely rare opportunity to hear Mendelssohn's Octet in E-Flat Major, Op.20 (1825), but it also contrasted two important works by the two greatest writers of string quartet music after Mozart: Beethoven's Quartet in F Minor, Op.95 (1810) and Bartok's Quartet No.2 (1917).

The Emerson Quartet is the apex of excellence when it comes to all the things that make quartet music so deeply satisfying: perfect ensemble, effortless execution, and a concept of the score that is nothing short of a course in miracles. There are only one or two other quartets in this league in the whole world. Friday's concert showed clearly why this is so. Opening with the Beethoven, they resisted any attempt to make the music pretty. Instead, they again and again pushed tempo and character to the brink of disaster, racheting up the work's raw rhythmic energy, tracing a precipitously rising expressive trajectory above the merely mundane or earthly, and maintaining a kind of savage edginess to the piece's pulsating quick movements, not fully abandoning this edge even in the slow movement. It was anything but an everyday reading, believe me.

In the Emerson's hands, the Bartok seemed to me perfectly matched with the Beethoven, for neither master ever compromised the integrity of purely musical ideas to reach for an easy or obvious effect in his chamber music. Bartok was the only composer after Beethoven, I think, to achieve a comparable intensity of string quartet writing. Even Schoenberg and Webern don't quite equal Bartok in this regard. The Second Quartet is 77 years old, yet people still hear it as contemporary; in fact it is well beyond such limited classifications: it is music for all eternity. The opening movement (moderato) evinces the lyrical ecstasy so characteristic of Bartok, a comingling of sadness and sweetness that is scarcely bearable. The incredibly swift and technically demanding allegro molto capriccioso that follows depends on shifting dance rhythms for its great vitality. But it is the last movement (lento) that like Beethoven takes us away from this tired planet and soars out into a wider universe, with a delicacy and a poignancy that leaves us suspended in awe.

After intermission, the two groups together revelled in the Mendelssohn. There was so much brilliant writing -- and brilliant playing -- that I'm sure not a few jaws, including mine, dropped in sheer wonderment. Especially winning, in my estimation, was the sublime slow movement (andante). An added pleasure in the performance was the visible delight members of the two groups took in playing the work together. There was such pandemonium in the form of applause and shouts of "Bravo!" at the end that the ensemble had to repeat the lightly flashing scherzo.

It's somewhat sad that a long historical program note about the Pro Arte managed not to mention Rudolf Kolisch, who led the quartet through about a third of its existence. But this concert reached a level of excellence that reminded me of Kolisch. It also showed how vital it is that our local musical life be enriched by unstinting support for great visiting artists. The Union's schedule is the strongest in many years, and nothing shows it better than the Emerson Quartet's program here.

Isthmus, December, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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