Review: Emerson Quartet Plays a Fine Farewell

It was with bittersweet emotions that I attended the Emerson String Quartet’s performance with Emanuel Ax at Symphony Center on Sunday. The Emersons have performed together since 1976, and the 2022-23 season is their last.

When I first became enamored of chamber music over 30 years ago, I lived in Washington DC, where the Emerson Quartet gave four free concerts every year at the Natural History Museum. This allowed me to see them more than anyone else. Their performances always produced something marvelous, and they introduced me to much amazing music.

Their recordings of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bartok, Shostakovich, and many others are stellar. Until the recent release by the Dover Quartet, the Emerson Quartet’s recordings of Beethoven’s quartets were the best.

There are several things that made the Emerson Quartet special. First was their longevity. In 46 years of performance, there was only one personnel change. Cellist Paul Watkins replaced founding member David Finckel in 2013. Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton have been ever present. Their intimate knowledge of themselves as string players gives their sound an enormous amount of cohesion and gel.  

Emerson Quartet. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography.

Another thing that made them special is that violinists Setzer and Drucker switch seats after every work. The first violin typically predominates in string quartet music, and the second violin plays a supporting role with the viola and cello. Switching seats gives the violinists a little more perspective of their contributions to the overall sound. They approach their parts with a level of understanding that few others can match.

Sunday’s concert allowed the Emerson Quartet to show off all of their strengths, starting with the opening work, Lyric for Strings by modern African American composer George Walker. This meditative work is the perfect vehicle for them to exhibit their intense ensemble interaction, which allowed them to make the undulating sounds seem seamless as the instruments rose and fall in a lush aural fabric. With Phil Setzer on first violin, the result was lovely and reflective. The only challenge is that the sound did not seem to carry all that well. The could have played a little louder.

Up next was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 12 in D-flat major. The Emerson Quartet has specialized in the 15 quartets by this 20th century composer who made the Soviet Union his home. While in the key of D-flat major, this work is constructed along 12-tone lines, which was apparent from the opening 12-tone riff played by cellist Watkins.

The first movement continues the quieter atmosphere established in the opening work, with only three of the four instruments playing for the first full minute. Second violinist Setzer soon joined with several pizzicato plucks. As the movement progresses, each of the players got plenty of moments to shine.

The second movement speeds things up with an interesting five note motif comprised of four short notes followed by a long one. They demonstrated excellent precision as the motif passed between the instruments. Their cohesion was notable in the movement’s slow section, when the cello played a melody backed up by the other instruments with muted strings. The only blemish was that the sound didn’t seem to carry all that well.

Emerson String Quartet and Emanuel Ax. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography.

After intermission, pianist Emanual Ax joined in for Antonín Dvořák’s marvelous Piano Quintet no. 2 in A-Major. Of course, the Emerson Quartet and Ax have performed together many times, and Setzer joked that playing piano was someone they didn’t know.

While Dvořák’s quintet is amazing, they performed this same work with Evgeny Kissin in 2018. Better would have been something different. As was the case five years ago, Setzer was on first violin.

What was distinctive about Sunday’s performance was the perfect aural blend between the piano and string quartet, whether the string players were sounding all at once or individually. There was a moment during the second movement, a Dumka form in which Dvořák excelled, when I thought to myself, “You can’t ask for a better blend.” By then the sound seemed to be carrying much better than it was earlier in the performance.

In this quintet Dvořák provided many opportunities for ensembles to show a full spectrum of emotions. The Dumka itself alternates between slow reflection and rapid cantor. The third movement Scherzo is a frolicking romp. While the playing seemed a bit less precise, it still worked well.

After a rousing ovation, as an encore, they played the slow, second movement from Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet, Op. 34. (It would have been nice to have heard the whole work, instead of the Dvořák.)  Again, Setzer and Drucker switched seats. It was a great farewell to this magnificent ensemble. I will miss the Emerson String Quartet.

The final opportunity to hear chamber music at Symphony Center this season is Tuesday, June 20, when the Lincoln Trio and friends give a free performance of Rhapsodies by Loeffler, songs by Brahms, and Schubert’s amazing Piano Trio no. 1 in B-flat major. 6:30pm. Free tickets can be obtained here.

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.