Emerson String Quartet – Season 68, Concert 5

January 31, 2016

Sunday, January 31, 2016, 3:00 pm
Vancouver Playhouse  

Eugene Drucker, violin
Philip Setzer, violin
Lawrence Dutton, viola
Paul Watkins, cello

The Emerson String Quartet has accumulated an unparalleled list of awards over three decades: more than thirty acclaimed recordings, nine Grammys® (including two for Best Classical Album), three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize, Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” and collaborations with many of the greatest artists of our time.

Paul Watkins, a distinguished soloist, award-winning conductor, and devoted chamber musician, joined the ensemble in 2013, its 37th season. The reconfigured group has been greeted with impressive accolades. “The Emerson brought the requisite virtuosity to every phrase. But this music is equally demanding emotionally and intellectually, and the group’s powers of concentration and sustained intensity were at least as impressive.” The New York Times

In a season of over 85 quartet performances, mingled with the Quartet members’ individual artistic commitments, the Emerson plays extensively throughout North America. Season highlights include collaborations with soprano Barbara Hannigan for Berg’s Lyric Suite at the Berlin Festival, with violist Roberto Diaz for Mendelssohn’s Viola Quintet at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, and with the Calidore String Quartet for the Mendelssohn Octet at Princeton University. The Emerson also performed at London’s Wigmore Hall, for the BBC Proms, and in May 2016 will appear at the second Piatigorsky International Cello Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Multiple tours of Europe include dates in Denmark, Czech Republic, Russia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Austria, Hungary and the United Kingdom, with additional concerts in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul. The Emerson continues its association with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC with a series of concerts. As well, Lincoln Center presents the Quartet as “Great Performers” in a three-part series of late Haydn and early Beethoven string quartets.

The Emerson’s 2015-16 season began with the release of a disc with renowned soprano Renée Fleming on the Decca/Universal label, featuring Berg’s Lyric Suite (including an alternate version of the last movement for soprano and quartet), Egon Wellesz’s Sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Eric Zeisl’s Komm, süsser Tod (Come, sweet Death).

The Emerson was one of the first quartets formed with two violinists alternating in the first chair position. In 2002, the Quartet began to stand for most of its concerts, with the cellist seated on a riser. The Emerson Quartet, which took its name from the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, is Quartet-in-Residence at Stony Brook University. In January 2015, the Quartet received the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, Chamber Music America’s highest honor, in recognition of its significant and lasting contribution to the chamber music field.
The Emerson String Quartet appears by arrangement with IMG Artists.

Programme

String Quartet in C major, Opus 76, No. 3 “Emperor” | Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Allegro
Poco adagio, cantabile
Menuetto: Allegro
Finale: Presto
(Philip Setzer, First Violin)

The six quartets of Opus 76 are the last but three of Haydn’s eighty-three string quartets. These final masterpieces, composed after Haydn’s second visit to England, are the fulfillment of his genius and mastery.

The Emperor Quartet derives its name from the slow movement – a set of variations on the Austrian Hymn, Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. This same melody is known to modern listeners for its later use in the German national anthem. Haydn wrote this most famous of all national anthems in 1797, when Napoleon’s armies were closing in on Austria. There is a noble quality about the whole quartet, springing in part from the quality of the scoring. Haydn achieves an almost symphonic richness of sound, using octaves, double-stopping and the lowest register of the cello. The nobility also springs from the strength and definition of the themes themselves.

The first movement, set in sonata form, is constructed of a 5-note motif, actually the first 5 notes of the C major scale, contrasted with a skittering dotted rhythm. After its initial statement, the principal theme reappears in a remote key deepened by the low-lying register of all instruments. It returns again in the development section where, over a massive double drone in cello and viola, it suddenly transforms into a rustic dance.

The four variations of the Emperor’s Hymn are simply sung by each instrument in turn against a background of accompanying melody and harmony.

The third movement menuetto is also a spare and simple dance, more country than courtly. Its most prominent feature is the use of contrasting major and minor keys. The delightfully romantic Trio is in A minor, with a sudden lift into A major.

A bit of drama is introduced in the finale, where three chords announce the key of C minor. Rapid passages in triplets figure prominently. Just before the coda it moves gradually into C major, in which key it proceeds to a brilliant conclusion.

String Quartet No. 4 | Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Allegro

Prestissimo, con sordino
Non troppo lento
Allegretto pizzicato
Allegro molto
(Eugene Drucker, First Violin)

The arch form of the Fourth Quartet is easy to grasp on its most obvious level. The first and fifth movements mirror each other: both are fast, and both are in sonata-form. The second and fourth movements are both scherzos, the second extremely fast, the fourth somewhat more relaxed – an Allegretto played entirely pizzicato. The slow movement is the center of the work, and within it can be seen the kernel of the arch form of the whole piece.

A deeper aspect of the arch form is the motivic relationship between the mirror-movements. Wild chords introduce the Finale’s first theme, a series of jagged, brutal outcries. These are derived from the quiet, sinuous second theme-cell of the opening movement. The development section of the Finale quotes the first movement’s main motive with only a slight modification. The Finale’s coda abruptly slows down to the moderately fast pace of the first movement, paraphrasing the last few lines of that movement. The motivic similarities of the second and fourth movements can be perceived with careful attention. The deceptive difference between the opening themes of each movement is that one is chromatic and the other is diatonic. The second theme-groups of the scherzos are more obviously alike, each consisting of a close canon between the violins.

At the opening of the piece, the instruments thrash around, piling up sustained notes one after the other, before the cello spits out the principal motive in the seventh measure. It consists of sic notes, three upward and three downward half-steps. The first 13 measures sound like an argument between four voices with four irreconcilable points of view. Then the atmosphere suddenly changes, and the second theme-group appears in a sort of perpetual canon between all the instruments, creating an exotic tapestry. This contrasting motive is directly derived from the main one; the half-steps are expanded to whole-steps and minor thirds, the motivic cell is extended a bit, and the whole phrase is played legato instead of staccato.

Thus the arch form of the entire work is only the most obvious manifestation of a process of continuous evolution. The two theme-groups of the first movement are two faces of the same musical impulse. The main themes of the twin scherzos have the same up-and-down symmetry as the six-note primary motive of the whole piece, but with many more notes. The primary motive is like the genetic information contained in a DNA molecule, resulting in the characteristics of the entire organism. The six-note motive is chromatic, so the half-step becomes the most important interval in the quartet.

Even the third movement, which is the most different from the others in both character and material, is dominated by the interval of the second. The highly ornamented cello solo near the beginning gravitates chromatically around the keynote, D, touching all the neighboring notes for four measures before the intervallic range is expanded. After the cell’s improvisation subsides, there is a night-music section, in which the twitterings of the violin and, later, the bizarre cries of the viola in its upper register are composed almost entirely of seconds and related intervals-sevenths and ninths. A defiant melody in the second violin marks the center of the movement and of the whole work. The movement ends with a combination of the nocturnal chirpings of the violin and the florid melody of the cello. Most of this exquisite music is played against a background of sustained, shimmering secundal chords.

The Fourth Quartet represents the ultimate solution to various compositional problems that Bartók set for himself. It is some of his most rigorous music. But for all its intellectual and technical mastery, it has poignancy, color, mystery, and (in the Finale) a wildly pulsating rhythm.

Program notes by Eugene Drucker from the Emerson String Quartet

INTERMISSION

String Quartet in F, Opus 96 “American” | Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Allegro ma non troppo

Lento
Molto vivace
Finale: Vivace ma non troppo
(Eugene Drucker, First Violin)

As a youth, Dvořák, who was a chamber music player, greatly admired the works of the classical masters. However, in his early twenties he was strongly drawn to the folk idiom of Bohemia, which he realized could be a source of inspiration for his own music. It is not surprising that on Dvořák’s arrival in New York in 1892 to take up position as director of the National Conservatory of Music, he should be drawn to Black American music. In the summer of 1893, while residing in Spillville, Iowa, he listened with great interest to the Black plantation songs and the songs of the American Indians. In this small Bohemian farming community he wrote the American Quartet, with a distinct “American” influence. The Quartet does not contain direct quotations but was written in the spirit of American folk melodies. Subtle contrasts of texture and tone colour, along with melodic charm combine to make Opus 96 one of his finest works. Written just after his New World Symphony, it was nicknamed the American Quartet.

In the introduction to the Allegro, the viola sings a jaunty melody against a rustling tremolo chord in the violins. The second theme played by the first violin is more tentative and subdued. The development is based on the first theme and is followed by a fugato derived from the second theme, which serves as a transition to a repeat of both themes.

The Lento, considered the best movement of the quartet, is distinguished by its lyrical beauty, depth of expression, and transparent harmonies. It is a lovely flowing melody, played by the first violin and cello, while the second violin and viola maintain a murmuring accompaniment.

The third movement is a simple bagatelle built on a single theme that has a vivacious rhythmic opening clause and a gentle rocking close. Structurally, the movement can be divided into two parts arranged in ABABA sequence. The first part “A” is thought to have been inspired by songs of birds in the Iowa woods. The second “B” theme is a slower version of “A” and has a mysterious mood that provides a contrast to the first.

The Vivace is a rondo, with a skipping rhythmic pattern heard throughout. Other high-spirited melodies follow. Finally, after a short chorale-like strain, thought to have been derived from hymns Dvořák enjoyed playing at the church services in Spillville, the Quartet ends in a burst of good spirits.

Next Concerts
Both at the Vancouver Playhouse at 8.00 pm
Tuesday, February 16, 2016 at 8.00pm.
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (Piano Quartet)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in E flat Major, op-us 16 for piano and strings

Ernst von Dohnanyi
Serenade in C Major, opus 10 for violin, viola and cello

Antonín Dvořák
Quartet in E flat Major, Opus 87 for piano and strings

Tuesday, February 26th, 2016
Szymanowski Quartet

Waclaw of Szamotuly
Four Polish renaissance Chorals

Franz Joseph Haydn
Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 33, No.2 “The Joke”

Grazyna Bacewicz
String Quartet No. 4

Antonín Dvořák
Quartet in A flat, opus 105

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