Emerson Quartet

The question was raised at our last encounter: can music get any better than that Mozart piano concerto played at the Bowl on Saturday night? The answer was quick to arrive, as the Emerson Quartet gave the first of its two Monday night concerts at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater across the way: It can, and it did. This was a concert to take home and replay in the memory, and I mean more than once.
The Emersons have been here before, notably in the complete Beethoven cycle two seasons ago at several concert venues; they’ve been together for over a decade. They show no apparent interest in brand-new music or production gimmicks; they are just the latest in a line of superbly trained American ensembles — Juilliard, Lenox, Guarneri, Cleveland, Sequoia — who can approach the heartwood of the chamber-music legacy with fresh young eyes, ears and hands, and keep this repertory alive as one of civilization’s commanding glories.
On Monday night, in that idyllic setting on Cahuenga Pass still known to relatively few, the Emersons played Prokofiev, Haydn and Beethoven, and played it all with flawless technique and great spirit. Without stretching points, they demonstrated some interesting links between Prokofiev’s B-minor Quartet (Opus 50), which began the evening, and the Haydn “Joke” Quartet (Opus 33 No. 2) which followed, especially in the matter of texture — the clear contrapuntal interplay in the faster sections of the Prokofiev, the great melodic arches in the slow movements, the whole structure clear and classically well-defined, the similar virtues throughout the Haydn.
Best of all, the group takes chances, with daring bursts of speed and with a dangerously wide dynamic range from very soft to very loud. Violinist Philip Setzer defined the risks as he began Beethoven’s stark, mystery-laden C-sharp minor Quartet (Opus 131), playing the initial chromatic fugue subject so softly as to suggest a voice from beyond the mountains. The entire first movement seemed to unwind organically from that initial challenge, in a crescendo of both loudness and passion.
The whole work, in fact, went by like that: the demonic smatterings of dissonant triplets throughout the first allegro; the mystical glow as the set of slow variations seems to break apart  into sharp, jagged particles of sound, and then to pull itself back together in that final, lushly scored reworking of the theme; the savagery in that grim, pounding finale.
The Emersons took the full measure of this extraordinary score; there, amid the trees and under the stars at that jewel of a concert venue,¬† its splendid natural acoustics unsullied by electronic interference, the stature of this gigantic flight of Beethoven’s ripe genius took shape. As an encore there was the deep, resonant stillness of yet more music from that incredible time, the D-flat {ITAL lento assai {ENDITAL from the last of the quartets (Opus 135), a movement that Beethoven had originally planned for the Opus 131.
Can music get any better than this? I will withhold the question for now because next Monday, same time same place, the Emersons (plus Lynn Harrell) take on Schubert’s C-major String Quartet. I can taste it already.