Emerson Quartet

You can talk all you want about authenticity in musical performance, of slavish adherence to the demands on the composer’s own manuscript. When it comes to the interpretation of music’s high romanticism, when composers tossed caution out the window and let their spirits soar, there is nothing that can substitute for a group of performers who know how to do likewise. Monday night’s concert at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, the last of two visits by the Emerson Quartet, turned out to be that kind of evening,  fearless and exhilarating all the way.
Two works were played: the C-major String Quintet of Schubert from 1828,  his last year, and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” from 1899, in its original version for string sextet — two scores that encompassed virtually all of that era in music when composers did, indeed, let their music fly on its own wings into glorious, unknown regions. Schoenberg’s 30-minute piece languishes somewhat under the shadow of  late Wagner and early Mahler. Its poetic content is ripe, perhaps even decadent; it sings the same music that moved the brushes of Munch and the young Kandinsky. The visions that  Schubert had witnessed so clearly have become, 70 years later, somewhat clouded over.
What a work, that 50-minute outpouring of the dying, driven Schubert! Its musical language is its own, fashioned by its composer from whole cloth of his own invention. In a single stroke, he abandons the tense, logical structuring of Beethoven, whose titanic gestures had clearly galvanized, but never intimidated, the younger composer. Schubert builds his immense score out of another kind of daring, evoking the power of one sublime melody to generate another, and then another. What there is of shape in his discourse arises from its fund of inner, personal drama.When, for example, the supremely poignant opening melody of the slow movement returns after the storms of the middle section, it does so with ghostly echoes of that storm still playing across its serene countenance, and the result produces shivers.
I have heard more careful performances than the one the Emersons gave, with Lynn Harrell taking on the second cello part, but seldom one so willing to meet the music on its own larger-than-life terms. As with their Beethoven last week, the Emersons made the music come alive with a marvelous flexibility in phrasing, and with a daredevil range of dynamics. Such moments as Harrell’s tracing of those echoes in the slow-movement passage described above, so close to silence as to function subliminally, will linger long in the memory.
The Schoenberg, with the Philharmonic’s Heiichiro Ohyama joining the ensemble as  second viola, came alive through similar devices, a driving, larger-than-life passion underscored once again by the players’ vivid, flexible phrasing and an extreme dramatic range. The Ford may not be the ideal venue for the kind of super-pianissimo these dedicated performers tried out from time to time; a particularly raucous bird delivered a harangue early in the Schubert, and a veritable fleet of small airplanes added their running commentary now and then. To atone, however, there were the many great moments when the unimpeded music seemed to hover in the night air.
That is the way concerts should be. Next week, however, I think I’ll take my cat Myrtle, who loves birds in her special way,  and perhaps also rent an antiaircraft battery for the night.

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