Lincoln Center – Avery Fisher Hall Mostly Mozart Festival August 19, 2013 The Emerson String Quartet Eugene Drucker, violin Philip Seltzer, violin Lawrence Dutton, viola Paul Watkins, cello Ludwig van Beethoven The three Razumovsky Quartets op.59 No.1 in F major No. 2 in E minor No. 3 in C major
May I venture to say that the three Razumovskys are the best known of Beethoven’s seventeen? In any case, they are to me, as I remember wearing out my father’s Concert Hall Society recording when I was not yet in my teens – all right, you will say that there were no recordings and no Concert Hall Society in the 1680’s, but I invoke artistic license for these reminiscences. These recordings, by the Pascal String Quartet, were on translucid dark red vinyl LPs, a beauty. I no longer have them, I’m deeply sorry to say. My father collected them – I believe he had a subscription – and they were my very first source of auditory bliss. I made many discoveries through them too, like the piano version of Beethoven’s D major violin concerto, arranged by the composer himself and played by Artur Balsam. I have never come across any other recording of this transcription, but now, just by googling it, I conjure up quite a few, and by performers of weight: Alicia de Larrocha, Ronald Brautigam, Dmitri Bashkirov, Olli Mustonen and Daniel Barenboim, to name only those that immediately jump to my attention. Now that I have set my memories in motion, I could go on and on about those records, but this is not what I meant to write about, and what I heard a few weeks ago was no less exciting.
Strangely enough, I had never heard the prestigious Emerson live. There, now you know, nobody’s perfect. I did have my share of live Beethoven quartet performances though, and of the highest caliber. The Guarneri, over and over again. The Alban Berg, also quite a few times. The Juilliard, oh, the glory of that name! The Cleveland, in performance and in masterclasses too. The young Casals and Pacifica quartets, who are every bit as interesting as their seniors. I know there were others, but you can’t expect my memory to be perfect in my 300 somethings.
My first surprise as I sat down in Alice Tully Hall was to see a solitary chair on a podium on the stage. This was my life première of a standing quartet. Again, I turn to Google, the 21st century version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Apparently, the trend is relatively new – I read an interview with the first violinist of the New Zealand String quartet (http://www.nzsq.co.nz/news-reviews/features/why-does-the-quartet-play-standing-up/ , if you are interested), in which she gives a convincing explanation and seems to claim they were the first group or one of the first groups to do so. Now,that would really have been a much better issue to contend with for the “Late Quartet” bunch, who just argued over playing by heart. And the effect in the last scene of the movie would have been far more dramatic, the three upper strings rising and leaving only the new cellist glued to her chair. Maybe I should turn to script writing… So now there are quite a number of standing quartets, and the Emerson is one of them.
I knew that cellist David Finckel had very recently left the quartet. But I had no idea who his replacement was. I was in for one of the greatest thrills of my life as audience. To be fair, I will again say that I had never heard the Emerson live before, but I had heard them often in recording, and knew they were one of the very best. Nevertheless, I never expected what came next. I was quite simply bowled over.
They came in looking great in white tuxedos, perfectly fit for a New York Summer festival. They began sounding just as great as they looked, as they took off for one of the most soaring flights I have ever witnessed.
The Razumovskys definitely strike a perfect balance between the early Mozartian op.18 and the mostly dark and cerebral late quartets. The opening of the F major immediately sets you in the mood, with the higher instruments providing an insistent pedal to the theme stated by the cello, and then a reversal where the violin restates the beautiful theme, followed by the development which is, fittingly, an animated conversation between the four instruments, mainly involving this first theme. Not being a musicologist, I’ll refrain from analyzing this huge amount of material. I don’t even know how specialists do it, it would take me a lifetime to describe each note, which is what I’d be tempted to do. No, you have to take a few steps back and listen to structure and phrasings and modulations. I tend to get stuck on a few notes, the sheer beauty of which mesmerize me. Such is the very first theme of the very first movement of the very first of these three quartets. The intensity of the rhythmic pedal gets me to the point which I begin to understand why some people can be attracted by those horrendous rock beats. Beethoven the heavy metal star, what do you know?
I’m beating about the bush, maybe because I’m again going to have to sin against good literary form and be totally dithyrambic. The cause of my lack of restraint is the quartet’s cellist. I did not know Paul Watkins and now I’m ready to start a fan club. The man is positively a wizard. Not that the other three are not fine musicians. They of course are, and that is why the quartet is one of the best around these days. But enter Paul Watkins, and the quartet rises from great to sublime. The cellist is the heart and soul of the performance, throughout. Absolute perfection, no less. Why, will you ask? Because he is there to hold everything together, because he is the backbone and the nervous system of the quartet in absolutely every aspect. Watkins has an unbelievably wide range of expressive means at his disposal. His dynamics are the epitome of malleability, his rhythm is the paradigm of precision, his phrasing is a model of fluency, in short, he is the very best quartet cellist I have ever heard. And considering how much more difficult it is to play in a small ensemble than it is to play solo (another statement open to discussion), I would not shy away from saying he is one of the best cellists I have ever heard period. He was there at every turn, his signal light always on, an infallible GPS but also a perfect mixer and blender – oh, enough silly metaphors!
Truth is, after hearing the haunting second movement of the third quartet in the series, in the deceptively simple key of C major, I could barely move. I wanted to stay there forever and to hear every note over and over again. That is how affected and overwhelmed I was.
When they played the last note, the audience rose to a man. The ovation was long, very long. I had a lump in my throat and went home in a daze. I just wish you had all been there, because you would really have loved every second – and because I’m sure you don’t believe a word I have written.