So I think it’s safe to remark on the love affair the classical music world has with Beethoven. My music history textbook, for instance, torridly describes Beethoven and his works in a 20-page love letter to man’s greatness. To the delight of Beethoven fanatics in the New York City area, this month has been bursting with Beethoven. The New York Philharmonic is soon to conclude its Modern Beethoven Festival under the direction of Beethoven pioneer David Zinman. And even closer to home, the Emerson String Quartet astounded Stony Brook audiences with their February and March performances of Beethoven string quartets.
On March 15, the quartet held their final performance of the semester at the Staller Center Recital Hall. Straight off a tour in Italy, they had a surprisingly hefty lineup in store for audiences. They began with the late Mozart String Quartet in F major, K.590, showcasing their recent CD release of Prussian works for quartets. Then they played a modern piece by Wolfgang Rihm, String Quartet No. 4, composed in 1981. After intermission, they concluded with a singularly bombastic and moving rendition of Beethoven’s Op. 132, String Quartet in A minor.
The first half of the program was a study in juxtaposition. Emerson’s opening piece, the last string quartet written by Mozart, was both tuneful and meditative. Gene Drucker, as first violinist, soared tenderly above the warm strains of his fellow musicians. This was immediately contrasted with the more modern Rihm, with its sometimes violent and other times lyrical gestures, highlighting Emerson’s versatility. While the crowd did not seem to connect to the modern musical language of the Rihm as openly as they did with the Mozart, the Emerson’s technical mastery became a focal point of the performance. Particularly impressive was violist Larry Dutton’s unrelenting command of his instrument. His mammoth sound gave the piece a resounding voice.
However, Emerson’s performance of Beethoven’s Op. 132 is what made this performance truly spectacular. Unintimidated by the monumental task of performing this musical behemoth, the quartet performed the piece with aplomb and emotional zeal. The end of the first movement left the packed room sizzling with energy, a collective sigh issuing from some members of the audience. The third movement, with its spiritual style, moved many concertgoers to tears.
Even after noting their extensive list of accomplishments detailed in the program, I still find myself stunned by Emerson’s polished performance on Thursday night. With a shared history of over 30 years, the quartet performed three radically different pieces, all cohered under their trademark sense of composure and finesse.