Emerson String Quartet Devotes Three Hours to Haydn at Ravinia

The Emerson String Quartet plays a marathon at Ravinia. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco.
The Emerson String Quartet plays a marathon at Ravinia. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco.

In a marathon, three-hour concert that included two intermissions at Ravinia on Tuesday night, the Emerson String Quartet gave an energetic, vibrant, yet nuanced, performance of six quartets that comprise Haydn’s Opus 76. In doing so, the Emersons demonstrated the musical breadth and vision Haydn displayed at the pinnacle of a long, marvelous career.

While music scholars debate who actually created the string quartet as a musical form, nobody disputes who perfected it. Over a 40 year period, Franz Josef Haydn created 68 works for the arrangement of two violins, viola, and cello. While only a couple of the first 22 quartets are particularly interesting, starting in 1772, when he published six quartets as Opus 20, Haydn cranked out one set of excellent quartets after another—46 additional works in total. With each new set, usually published in groups of 3 or 6, Haydn explored different aspects of the quartet, experimenting with musical styles and forms, and writing for intimate, in-home settings, as well as large, grand concert halls.

In 1797, Haydn’s wealth of compositional knowledge came together in a set of 6 quartets, Opus 76, that represent his single greatest statement in the string quartet form. None of these masterpieces are among my absolute favorite Haydn quartets, but as a single body of work Op. 76 has it all. While some of this music looks backwards, most of it focuses on the future, showing that Haydn could incorporate the latest musical trends, particularly those being espoused by Beethoven—although the proud Haydn masked the references, obvious to everyone, to his former, erstwhile pupil.

The Emerson String Quartet, having performed together as long as Haydn wrote string quartets, has achieved a level of sophistication and polish unmatched by any of their rivals. One of the reasons behind their 40 years of success is the fact that the violinists switch chairs for different works in each concert. This unusual practice allows the two violinists to play the lead role as first violin half of the time; the other half is spent playing the follower role as the second violin.

On Tuesday, Philip Setzer played first violin for Op. 76 numbers 1, 2, and 3, while Eugene Drucker took the lead on 4, 5, and 6. At an autograph signing session after the concert, Setzer said that the demands Haydn placed on the first violin in Opus 76 are so great, a performance of all six works in one evening was only possible because Drucker played first violin on half of them. “They’re like mini-concertos,” he said, “every bit as demanding.”

The Emersons’ cohesion was put to the test in 2013 when long-time cellist David Finckel left the group, to be replaced by Paul Watkins. This concert was my fourth opportunity to hear the new line-up, with the previous three concerts being less than stellar. Tuesday’s performance revealed that Watkins has become fully enmeshed in the Emersons’ sound, as evidenced by the opening work, String Quartet in G-major, Op. 76 no. 1. After an initial three chord flourish, the instruments, led by Watkins’ cello, entered one-by-one into a quaint and charming tune. Most ensembles play this with gusto, but the Emersons, as is their fashion, took a much more reserved approach, allowing them more leeway to show greater intensity as the movement progressed.

The third movements of the G major and E-flat major quartets have all the hallmarks of Beethoven’s comic and lively scherzos, although Haydn gave them the traditional minuet title. In the G-major’s third movement, the Emersons showed the rhythmic precision demanded in the opening section. The middle section had the feel of a concerto, as Setzer played an airy tune while the other players plucked in accompaniment.

Up next was the d-minor quartet, Op. 76 no. 2, known as the Quinten Quartet because the main melody is comprised of descending major fifths. The Emersons’ slower pace extracted all of the tensions that could possibly emerge from this dark movement. Relief came in the light, slow movement where Setzer, again, played solo while the others backed him up.

The second third of the concert was timed to start right at sundown, when the Emersons started playing Hadyn’s Sunrise Quartet, in B-flat major, Op. 76 no. 4. The quartet got its sobriquet, from someone other than Haydn, for the calm, ascending way it opens—played with warmth and beauty by Eugene Drucker in his initial go at first violin this evening. Paul Watkins also shined as he introduced the secondary theme that descended on his cello.

The Emperor Quartet, in C major, Op. 76 no. 3 came next. Of all these quartets it contains the most recognizable tune to American audiences. Haydn, having heard God Save the King during his visits to London, was inspired to write something equally suitable for the Habsburg emperors in Vienna. The result was a theme with variations based on a beautiful tune that, unfortunately, was absconded by the Nazis for their national anthem. Today it remains the Austrian national anthem, but it’s hard to avoid dark connotations of this work, however beautifully the Emersons performed it.

The final third of the concert featured the two works that are the most forward looking of the Op. 76 set. The String Quartet in E-flat major, no. 6, does not open with the traditional sonata-form movement, but with a theme and variations. Unlike the set of variations from the Emperor quartet and all other sets of variations previously written, it ends with a fugue typical of Bach. The Emersons approached this very majestically and created a nice contrast between the slower variations and the faster fugue.

The concert had already run for 2.5 hours by the start of the last work, String Quartet in D major, Op. 76 no. 5, but the Emersons maintained their polish and drive. The opening movement is another strange Haydn concoction, starting with a slow, plaintive melody that breaks into rapid flourishes. When the initial music returns, it’s often played very rapidly, but the Emersons took it at a more measured pace, giving it much more feeling than one typically hears. There was no restraint in the finale, which demonstrated the Emersons durability; in this endurance test, the Emersons proved worthy.

As the last note sounded, the audience jumped to its feet, very appreciative of the rare opportunity to hear, in one performance, six works played by the best ensemble in the business. It allowed for a special appreciation of Haydn’s greatest string quartet opus.

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

One comment

  1. Harris always seems to be able to not only add an amazing musical knowledge to his reviews but also displays what we musicians call a “touch”- the ability to go beyond the normal observations and include the feelings a piece or concert may(or may not) create for the listener. This requires him to go beyond his particular preferences in music to include what others may enjoy. I suppose it is similar to the buyer of a retail store purchasing more than the buyer’s favorite color blue when purchasing pants for the store. For Harris to succeed here he has to go beyond his personal prejudices and include some that may be opposite to his own. As such, I always learn from his reviews and occasionally may have my concert choices shaped by someone else’s recommendations.

    I always have wondered if Harris is a musician himself?

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