The ultimate test of quality for any chamber-music ensemble, and for its
audience as well, is the slow movement from any of Beethoven’s mature string
quartet. The sublime blend of vision, passion and mystery, the way Beethoven
combines so few notes to signify so much: these stand as the definitive
statement on the power that music exerts at both ends of the process of
And it was this moment in the Emerson Quartet’s concert on Sunday afternoon,
at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall before a turnaway crowd, that most glowingly
affirmed the greatness of the event. These four young men, together now for 14
years, delivered the slow movement of Beethoven’s Second “Rasoumovsky”
Quartet with an extraordinary blend of intensity and intense calm. If the
legend that Beethoven conceived this particular music while contemplating the
starry sky has any validity, the Emersons’ performance fulfilled the story.The
silence their playing inspired out front was something you could almost taste.
None of this should come as any surprise. The Emerson Quartet is a frequent
and welcome visitor, with series of concerts at the John Anson Ford
Amphitheater and a Beethoven cycle at several historic sites among their
recent local credits. In an era when cool meticulousness is especially prized,
this group stands apart by virtue of the passion in their work and their
fearless risk-taking (ub their choices of extreme ranges of tempo and
dynamics, for example). They seem capable of every musical emotion except
They are proficient, as well, in a wide range. Sunday’s program included
Mozart’s stern, chill C-minor Adagio and Fugue, Elliot Carter’s pliant little
Elegy for Quartet (early Carter, somewhat French in its musical manner) and
the exuberant First Quartet of Bela Bartok, music teeming with its own energy
and full also of prophecies of the greater composer to come. Even the one
encore was uncommonly interesting: a Mozart Rondo, planned for the A-major
Quartet but left unfinished. By a composer’s triumphs, and by his abandoned
projects as well, we learn his full stature.
All this was superbly played, but the Beethoven surpassed all else, even so.
Music restless, full of grit and defiance, at rest only in the amusing
quotation of a Russian folksong in the scherzo: it clearly held the four
players in its spell, and they communicated the magic. First violinist Philip
Setzer, who had occupied the second violinist’s chair during the program’s
first half, got his instrument to soar enchantingly in that slow movement. His
colleagues: violinist Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist
David Finckel were no less in tune with this one-of-a-kind masterwork.