The Emerson String Quartet
Oct. 13, Hartt School of Music, 200 Bloomfield Ave.,
West Hartford, (860) 768-4451, emersonstringquartet.com
Sixteen years ago, at the opening convocation at the Hartt School of Music's Millard Auditorium, I listened in awe as the members of the Emerson String Quartet — rising stars in the classical music world, still in artistic residence at Hartt — steered through a knotty Charles Ives quartet.
The following year, at Lincoln Theater, I heard them play Dvoøák's String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96, B. 179, commonly known as the "American," followed by Edgar Meyer's newly composed Quintet, with Meyer himself on the double bass.
Dozens of former Hartt students can fondly recall their own favorite Emerson concerts, each memorable for a different reason — the excitement of starting at a new university, the knowledge gained at Hartt between shows, the introduction of a new work to one's own repertoire of known pieces. The Quartet — violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel — cut their teeth right here, for 21 years; as Steve Metcalf, director of instrumental studies at Hartt, wrote back in 2002: "That's longer than most marriages last these days."
The truth is, we had them in our backyard for 21 years, and we probably took them for granted. But now they're back, for one night anyway, to perform as part of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series on Oct. 13. They'll also be given honorary doctorates from the University of Hartford at the show.
"I would say that the [Hartt School] treated us very well," says Drucker from his home in New York. "We had many opportunities to perform there. ... I look forward to coming back to Hartt. I have many years of fond associations. It's going to evoke some earlier times in my life when I was younger."
Now celebrating its 35th anniversary, the Emerson, currently in residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, just signed with Sony Classical after a long-standing relationship with Deutsche Grammophon. The stats they racked up under the DG banner are ridiculous, not just for a chamber music group but for any artist: nine Grammys (their Bartók and Shostakovich sets each won for Best Classical Album), three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize. They're about to release a disc of the three Prussian quartets, Mozart's last, which he composed in 1789 and 1790.
"We had not made any significant recordings of Mozart in 20 years," Drucker says. "We seemed to focus more on Haydn in our recording life, but that never meant that we were not interested in Mozart. There's always been an unspoken sense that we were going to record more. It just happened to take this long."
Endless discussions circulate among musicologists about whether the Prussian set should be considered "late-style" Mozart, à la Beethoven and Schubert's final quartets. Some say they are darker than the six dedicated to Haydn, composed earlier between 1782 and 1785. Each of the Haydn set, which includes the famous String Quartet No. 19 in C major ("Dissonance," K. 465), is a pinnacle of the Classical string-quartet genre and remains widely played and recorded. There's also the matter of Mozart's touching dedication ("May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend!"), which may have endeared the Haydn set to generations of listeners more so than the Prussian quartets.
"I wouldn't say they are more austere than the Haydn quartets," he says. Pointing to a couple of wrenching passages within the slow movements, Drucker reminds me that Mozart was under financial stress when he wrote the Prussian set. "He was in great debt and had to cut off his set of six down to three to get some ready cash," he explains. "I think he thought he was selling them cheap. ... But the music is of the highest quality. It's crystalline, beautiful, perfect, if not the most personal."
The Emersons, Drucker says, try to play Mozart as beautifully as possible, not only with an ear for perfection in terms of accuracy, shapely phrasing and so on, but also trying to live up to the excellence of the writing. There are places where they can dig in, playing deeper with the bows in the strings, but not as many as in the six Haydn quartets. Drucker's frequently asked whether or not he sees signs of progress or development in the writing; he doesn't, apart from certain distinctive, well-known characteristics, like the octaves and the elaborate cello parts.
"He used the cello more because the king of Prussia was an amateur cellist and Jean-Pierre Duport, the court cellist, was the best in Europe," Drucker says. "It came naturally as a sort of homage to the king." Two of the three quartets have more highly developed minuets than Mozart's Haydn quartets. "The minuet of K. 589 is quite virtuosic," Drucker notes. "And the trio section really has a great deal of sophistication. In mood, it's operatic."
As for traces of Mozart's late style, Drucker doesn't hear anything as path-breaking as late Beethoven or Schubert.
"He didn't know he was going to die," Drucker says. (Mozart died in 1791 at age 35.) "He wrote these three perfect and beautiful quartets, but they are not like his last four operas [Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790), La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte (both 1791)]. Those you can point to and say they are really 'late' works. ... If the quartets don't have the most compelling statement to make, perhaps that's one way that Mozart reacted to the dire state he was in. He really was having trouble paying his bills."
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