Photo by Jürgen Frank
Emerson String Quartet
Saturday, December 3, 2022
Bing Concert Hall
Paul Watkins, cello
Eugene Drucker, violin
Philip Setzer, violin
Lawrence Dutton, viola
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 1, in E-flat, Op. 12, MWV R25 (1829)
Adagio non troppo - Allegro non tardante
Molto allegro e vivace
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 3, in B-flat, Op. 67 (1875)
Agitato. Allegretto non troppo
Poco Allegretto con variazioni
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Quartet No. 14, in A-flat, Op. 105, B. 193 (1895)
Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro appassionato
Lento e molto cantabile
Allegro non tanto
PROGRAM SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Please be considerate of others and turn off all phones, pagers, and watch alarms. Photography and recording of any kind are not permitted. Thank you.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847
String Quartet No 1, in E-flat, Op. 12, MWV R25 (1829)
Felix Mendelssohn wrote the string quartet we now know as No. 1 during the first of many visits to Britain, dating it "September 14, 1829, London." The tour included a summertime visit to Scotland and Wales, the former providing the inspiration for his Hebrides overture and the Scottish symphony. Yet, even as Mendelssohn began work on the quartet, the romanticism of the setting was not reflected in its music. The 20-year-old composer turned away from the more extravagant ideals of romanticism and continued his deep reflection upon the string quartets of Beethoven and the solid virtues of the German classical school. As the quartet opens, there is a passing nod to Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, Op. 74, almost as a valedictory tribute to the older composer who had only died a little over a year earlier. The hymn-like theme and the yearning and gentle melancholy of the subsequent Allegro non tardante, together with the whimsical, rather wispy folk-tune of the Canzonetta, belong in polite society, where emotion is contained, and passion restrained. Still, while the traditional framework of the opening movement is clearly drawn, subtle harmonic shifts find Mendelssohn quietly rethinking the tonal stability of the overall structure.
In his string quartets, Mendelssohn was an individualist intent on seeking his own solutions to the challenges of the medium. His A minor quartet, written two years earlier (but misleadingly published as Op. 13), drew on the technique of cyclical form, where the various movements of a quartet are linked to one another. The coda of today’s E-flat quartet also brings back themes from its opening movement and reworks them into a radiant conclusion. Furthermore, the individual character of each of the movements seems moderated to blend into an overall view of the quartet. For this reason, the slow movement takes on the role of an extended introduction to the finale. And what was traditionally the minuet or scherzo movement is, with Mendelssohn, a personal "character-piece"—in this case the lovely, understated Canzonetta. It remains Mendelssohn's most popular string quartet movement. So, although the spirit of his E-flat quartet is in many ways traditional, by adopting a creative approach to its structure, Mendelssohn arrived at a distinctly personal solution in which he avoids any feeling of fitting the music into a well-worn mold.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
String Quartet No. 3, in B-flat, Op. 67 (1875)
Brahms dedicated his three string quartets to medical men, saying that he felt a need for their presence because each quartet went through a difficult birth. His two earliest quartets, his Op. 51, had to wait till he was 40. He worked on them for some years and had already destroyed the sketches for some 20 earlier quartets that never saw the light of day. The B-flat quartet followed shortly after the two published quartets. He had just spent a stress-free summer in Ziegelhausen near Heidelberg, his retreat during the summer of 1875. "Life is only too happy," he wrote. The B-flat quartet reflects something of the rustic mood and is the only one in a major key. Paradoxically, however, it may reveal more substance and depth beneath its good-humored surface than the two earlier minor key quartets.
With the fanfare-like hunting calls that open the first movement, Brahms echoes Mozart of the B-flat Hunt quartet and his own early String Sextet, Op. 18. But, almost immediately, a rhythmically driven play of twos against threes, a favorite device of the composer, comes to the fore and continues to underline the rest of the quartet. The folk-like spirit continues with a second theme, now nodding in the direction of Dvořák, while the full significance of the rhythmic interplay of these two themes becomes clear in the coda, when they are combined.
The slow movement opens with a gloriously romantic, soaring theme that has something of an improvisatory feel as it unfolds. The central section continues the free feeling and even includes two measures in five beats, rather than the prevailing four. The D minor Agitato is elusive in character, having dark undertones to its passionate viola melodic writing. The viola remains unmuted, while the three muted strings add a shadowy, fleeting quality to the texture. The movement can leave a question mark and a feeling of uncertainty. The weight of the quartet falls on the finale, a series of eight variations, based on a theme of disarming simplicity and beauty. The way Brahms develops and intricately unfolds his variations is complex. And it seems appropriate that the music of the late Beethoven underlines the subtleties of Brahms's treatment of these variations. This, after all, is the last utterance Brahms permitted himself in the medium of the string quartet.
Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
Quartet No. 14, in A-flat, Op. 105, B. 193 (1895)
Chamber music has an important place in Antonín Dvořák’s catalog. He wrote some 30-plus chamber works, spanning 34 years, crowned by his fourteenth string quartet, in A-flat. Although many of the early quartets remained unpublished until long after his death, they developed a secure grounding in the medium. As a skilled viola player, Dvořák brings an insider’s understanding to the potential of the medium. Indeed, Dvořák is one of the few late 19th century composers to write truly idiomatic quartets that don’t endeavor to burst the seams of the medium. Two of his finest quartets, his last two, including Op. 105, were composed in less than two months. But the ease and pleasure with which he created them only came after a difficult period.
Behind him was a second visit to the United States. Artistically, it had been a success and he could look back with pride at the new Cello Concerto. But Dvořák had felt cut off from friends and relatives. He had been isolated from the Bohemian countryside and from a life that provided inspiration for his creativity. He returned to Bohemia in late April 1895. Once back in familiar surroundings, he fell back into the old routine that he had missed. For the next six months, however, the ink ran dry. Then the creative block began to disappear. Before long, Dvořák was able to write: "I work so easily, and everything goes ahead so well that I could not wish it better." His two late string quartets can be viewed as a summing up of all that he found good in the world. They are an affirmation of life and nature and reveal total mastery of the medium.
Dvořák had sketched the opening of the first movement of the A-flat Quartet in his last week in New York, but then laid it aside. After an initial hint of foreboding, the mood is generally positive and full of well-being, though the dark clouds hovering over the opening do not altogether disappear. The scherzo is a furiant, a Bohemian folk dance, exuberantly propelled, with a trio section full of lilting, soaring melodies. The melodies draw from Dvořák’s nationalist musical language, but somehow transcend time and place in one of the composer’s most satisfying chamber music movements. Then comes a heartfelt slow movement, musing dreamily on a folksong-like melody. Its ending introduces a note of unease into an otherwise untroubled musical discourse. The finale starts cautiously and appears at first reluctant to abandon itself to unbridled joy. But Dvořák’s happiness at being home seems to win through. The music is rich in musical ideas, sometimes nostalgic, more often upbeat and, ultimately, unambiguous in expression.
— Program notes © 2022 Keith Horner. Comments welcomed: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artists
Emerson String Quartet
The Emerson String Quartet has maintained its status as one of the world’s premier chamber music ensembles for more than four decades. “With musicians like this,” wrote a reviewer for The Times (London), “there must be some hope for humanity.” The Quartet has made more than 30 acclaimed recordings and has been honored with nine GRAMMYs® (including two for Best Classical Album), three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” award. The Quartet collaborates with some of today’s most esteemed composers to premiere new works, keeping the string quartet form alive and relevant. The group has partnered in performance with such stellar soloists as Renée Fleming, Barbara Hannigan, Evgeny Kissin, Emanuel Ax, and Yefim Bronfman, to name a few.
In the 2021-2022 season, the Quartet will give the New York premiere of André Previn’s Penelope at Carnegie Hall, alongside soprano Renée Fleming, actress Uma Thurman, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein, before reprising the program in a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In addition to touring major American venues extensively, the Quartet returns to Chamber Music Society of Louisville, where they will complete the second half of a Beethoven cycle they began in spring 2020. Finally, the Quartet embarks on a six-city tour of Europe, with stops in Athens, Madrid, Pisa, Florence, Milan, and London’s Southbank Centre where they will present the Emerson in a complete Shostakovich cycle, one of the staples in their repertoire.
The Quartet’s extensive discography includes the complete string quartets of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok, Webern, and Shostakovich, as well as multi-CD sets of the major works of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Dvorak. In 2018, Deutsche Grammophon issued a box of the Emerson Complete Recordings on the label. In October 2020, the group released a recording of Schumann’s three string quartets for the Pentatone label. In the preceding year, the Quartet joined forces with GRAMMY®-winning pianist Evgeny Kissin to release their debut collaborative album for Deutsche Grammophon, recorded live at a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert in 2018.
Formed in 1976 and based in New York City, the Emerson String Quartet was one of the first quartets to have its violinists alternate in the first chair position. The Quartet, which takes its name from the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, balances busy performing careers with a commitment to teaching and serves as Quartet-in-Residence at Stony Brook University. In 2013, cellist Paul Watkins—a distinguished soloist, award-wining conductor, and devoted chamber musician—joined the original members of the Quartet to form today’s group.
In the spring of 2016, the State University of New York awarded full-time Stony Brook faculty members Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton the status of Distinguished Professor and conferred the title of Honorary Distinguished Professor on part-time faculty members Eugene Drucker and Paul Watkins. The Quartet’s members also hold honorary doctorates from Middlebury College, the College of Wooster, Bard College, and the University of Hartford. In January of 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 enthusiastically endorses Thomastik strings.
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