Beethoven's three ‘Razumovsky’ quartets make for a
satisfying evening’s listening. In the company of the right quartet, of
course: and expectations were high after Tuesday night’s all-Haydn concert.
So what happened between then and
Thursday night? This was like listening to a different, and much inferior,
quartet. The first ‘half’ of the concert presented the first two quartets
of Op. 59, and lasted one and a half hours. In these two quartets, Beethoven
makes tremendous demands not only on his players but also on his listeners.
To bring it off, a string quartet that really understands middle-period
Beethoven is required and that simply was not the case in the present
The F major quartet, Op. 59 No.
1 began well enough, David Finckel’s cello singing expressively,
but warning signs began to appear as it became obvious that first violinist
Eugene Drucker was having an off day. His tuning was frequently
suspect and sometimes just plain painful. This prevented the performance
coming together in any meaningful way, despite some well-managed climactic
moments. The expressive cello lines of the Adagio molto e mesto
were highlights of the third movement, but still the Emerson Quartet
seemed unable to draw the audience into Beethoven’s world. With more
to do than in Haydn, the violist Lawrence Dutton showed himself
to be a sensitive and thoroughly musical player. The finale gave the
distinct impression that they were only then beginning to warm up: but
the problem is that Op. 59 No. 1 is not, and never will be, a warm-up
Even if they had by now played themselves
in, the two violins swapped places for Op. 59 No. 2, so
that effectively they had to, if not start again, certainly go back
a few steps. Philip Setzer, now on first violin, brought an improvement
to matters of pitch without being entirely rock-solid himself in this
respect. The violins’ exposed octaves of the first movement were scrappy,
but the major fault occurred when vigour degenerated into mere scrubbing.
Matters did improve with the slow movement, where there was convincing
interplay between lines, but some parts which could have been sublime
simply failed to make the grade. Even the Allegretto sagged, although
the passing around of the Russian theme (used again by Mussorgsky in
Boris Godunov) was successful.
After a well-deserved interval (I
refer now to the audience, not to the Emerson’s), Drucker once more
took the first violin’s chair for Op. 59 No. 3 in C. The harmonically
wayward introduction gave way to a theme which was not on this occasion
imbued with the sense of joy it needs. The third movement ‘Menuetto’
lived up to its ‘grazioso’ marking, but remained curiously and disappointingly
anonymous at the same time. There was more of a sense of the quartet
enjoying itself in the scampering final Allegro molto, but it was all
too late to rescue the concert. The Emerson’s simply never recaptured
the intensity and joy of Tuesday evening's concert, and they only fitfully
evoked the real spirit of Beethoven.