Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

132/130/133 Emerson Quartet

Wigmore Hall 19 March 2007

To begin at the end, we departed through the foyer of Wigmore Hall, set for action with a long signing table, four place sets with pens and bottled water, and ropes for orderly queuing.

We had attended the second of two concerts of late Beethoven quartets, and enjoyed the unimpeded visibility of the Emersons, who stand to play (cellist Finkel sitting on a special little podium). Their interpretations, well honed over the years, were totally reliable and sonically magnificent, with every transition expertly negotiated. In 132 my attention was often caught by the rich tone of Dutton's viola, and wondered if it was somehow enhanced by reflection from the cupola over the stage?

We are not 'complete Beethovenians' - at Wigmore Hall it was assumed that we already had programmes from the previous night - and I have often written about the disadvantages of intégrales (most notably when the London String Quartet Competition used to have obligatory major Beethoven quartets for its finals - a long, strenuous 'concert'). At home, we would never think to follow listening to one of these great works straight after another...

130, with its 'divertimento-like design' (and for which violinists Drucker and Setzer swapped places) is the more listener friendly of the two until the controversial final movement(s).

The original version's fearsome Grosse Fuge has - some will regret - been tamed in modern times, and is no longer daunting as in my earlier listening years. Misha Donat reminded us of its initial incomprehensibility and Stravinsky's 'it will be contemporary forever' - at a concert of mainly new music by the Kreutzer Quartet (recently reconsituted) I found their account more involving than the Emersons'; "for really modern sounding music we had a forthright account of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge".

It is nowadays problematic how to convey Beethoven's 'defiance of the medium - an essential part of Beethoven's conception'. Donat tells us how Beethoven rejected a commissioned arrangement of it for keyboard as too comfortable, and made his own 'virtually unplayable' arrangement.

On CD we now can choose for ourselves how to complete a hearing of Op 130. To end its brief residency at Wigmore Hall, the Emersons predictably gave the second finale as encore; a good solution to send the audience out happy.

Peter Grahame Woolf

see also Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard 20.03.07 and hear the broadcast on BBC R3, 24 April.