The Emerson String Quartet gave a wonderfully polished and exuberant concert Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 37th International Festival of Chamber Music.
This was the quartet’s annual visit, and as in past years, violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel presented an immaculately prepared program of works by two composers: Antonin Dvorak and Franz Joseph Haydn. Everything was performed with great commitment and focus.
In 1865 when Dvorak was 24, he wrote 18 songs for voice and piano collected under the title “The Cypresses.” Never published, Dvorak decided to adapt 12 of them for string quartet in 1887. The Emerson played all 12 but split them up into three sections to allow them to play Haydn’s three quartets from his Op. 74 in honor of the bicentennial of Haydn’s death in 1809. The choices provided some interesting contrasts.
The songs, most fairly short, were rich in melodies with echoes of Dvorak’s symphonic lyrical voicings. Each song was complete and they contrasted in moods, tempos and rhythms. The first violin part more often had those lovely lyrical lines and Setzer and Drucker, who took turns on the part, gave passionate utterances.
The Emerson’s mellifluous ensemble sound, which was always rich and tightly controlled, was balanced perfectly with Finckel acting as a solid anchor.
The Haydn quartets were written in 1793 and were considered experimental even at the time. Haydn was said to have had the less sophisticated concert public in mind rather than his patron, Count Apponyi, or the players. To this end, he wrote short but attention-getting introductions, more brilliant technical parts, easier to recall melodies and fewer details, and infused all this with more expressivity.
Even if a listener didn’t know all this, the quartets still had an adventuresome feel about them supported by Haydn’s usual unpredictability, seamless harmonic transitions and fluid meshing of lines.
In the first quartet, No. 1, Drucker had most of the technical work and even a couple of mini-cadenzas in the final movement. Tempos were moderate except for the last movement, which was exhilarating in its pace. Volume levels shifted gently. The Emerson was adroit, boisterous and robust.
In No. 2 with its many trills, three variations on a slow theme, perky moods and sliding chromaticism, the Emerson was high energy and played with relish. In No. 3, more piquant yet also more dramatic, had dance rhythms and used bars of silence to effect, the Emerson played with great pacing and a lighthearted flair.
The near-capacity crowd gave them a standing ovation.