The Emerson String Quartet brought two estimable colleagues Sunday afternoon to Union College’s Memorial Chapel to play Brahms’ two sextets as part of the International Festival of Chamber Music. From the first strains, the capacity crowd cast all cares away. The sound was like rich chocolate.
Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violists Lawrence Dutton and Paul Neubauer, and cellists David Finckel and Colin Carr played to a passionate and concentrated perfection.
They began with the first sextet in B-flat Major that Brahms began in 1857 at age 24, but worked on for three years before it was premiered in 1860. Very sunny in mood and harmonies over the four movements, it still has a very complex tapestry of interweaving lines. The players rarely had a few bars of rest because the music was so continuous.
Finckel, who played the first movement’s theme, projected with his customary rich tones in a very direct, simple, strong line. The movement ended with a piquant series of plucked bars.
The second movement showed off Dutton, who pushed through his lines boldly. The several variations included one that mimicked a mechanical music box with harmonics and plucked strings.
The third movement had unexpected shifts but the fourth movement varied between an open quality to high drama. The musicians played with great concentration.
The crowd responded with bravos and a huge applause and then swarmed the stage to purchase all the available CDs within minutes.
The second sextet in G Major was written in 1864 when Brahms was 31. He based some of the opening movement’s theme around a former lover, Agatha, by using the tones A-G-A-B (for “t”) and E.
Compared to his first sextet, the four movements had a lighter more lyrical and romantic quality with different methods of thematic development.
Melodies soared and the texture ranged from delicate to robust. The musicians set a propulsive energy, and showed a strong ensemble sense and great balances and pitch.
The most interesting movement was the last one which seemed to presage Tchaikovsky. It was frothy and dancey and had the same type of swirling lines and scalar passages that are so typical in his music, especially that which is used for the ballet. It was a very different kind of sound. Maybe he was listening?
The Emerson had intended to record the concert for Deutsche Grammophon but changed its mind because “they weren’t ready,” said series organizer Dan Berkenblit. How much better will they sound when they do record?
The Emerson returns April 27 to play three of Brahms’ quartets.