Emerson Quartet at the National Concert Hall, 17 November 2014

The Emerson Quartet are one of the household names of the string quartet world, their reputation setting up high expectations in the auditorium before they walk on for the first time.

Playing standing up, the quartet open with Haydn’s famous Joke Quartet. The quartet seems to blend effortlessly, threading four discernible but cohesive strands into a fabulous whole. It is particularly lovely to see outward signs of enjoyment on the face of the cellist, who joined the quartet only in the last couple of years. Throughout the concert, his smile is never far away – the sort of love of music that might be associated with amateurs, except that is playing is utterly flawless in intonation and judgement. Possibly the finest moment in the Haydn, is the gorgeous viola playing at the opening of the slow movement. The ‘joke’ of the piece, its daring false ending, is handled with a slight smirk rather than a slapstick routine – entirely fitting with the group’s subtle approach, one which is low on explosive character, but bursting with musicality.

Ravel’s only string quartet comes next, in a magnificent performance. It is almost impossible to perceive this playing as four individuals, as it sounds like a single sound source controlled by some sort of omnipotent organist. This is a testament to Ravel’s extraordinary command of string writing and sonority, but achieving this organic effect would seem to be beyond the realm of mere mortals. The extraordinary second movement (Assez vif. Très rythmé), with its groundbreaking and impractically symphonic pizzicato sections, is mesmerizing and exhilarating.

The second half is devoted to Beethoven’s String Quartet in Bb Major Op. 130, complete with its original ending, the ferocious and monumental Grosse Fuge Op. 133. This fugue was written off by contemporary critics as ‘incomprehensible, like Chinese’, and Beethoven replaced it with a much slimmer movement on the advice of his publisher. Two hundred years after its composition it is still considered as shocking and difficult to understand as anything written in the twentieth century – Stravinsky was one of its champions, correctly dubbing it ‘forever contemporary’.

In performances using the Grosse Fuge, instead of the alternate movement, the quartet takes on a totally different meaning, with the first five movements serving as a preface to the world-ending bestiality of the finale. Nevertheless, the Cavatina fifth movement is also famous in its own right, and it is searingly lyrical in this performance. The Emerson Quartet give Beethoven less reverence than many groups, properly engaging with his work instead of bowing at a shrine to the great master.

The opening portion of the fugue descends into a tumultuous mess, the single, breathing organism of the Ravel forced away by a marauding swarm of counterpoint. As things settle down the group coalesces again, but these passages are played in a way that truly matches the uncontrolled insanity of the music.

The most exciting thing about this performance is the extraordinary balance of timbre the group achieves, constantly shifting, using the four instruments as a complex palette of intermingling watercolours, rather than as four bold shades. Along with incredible balancing of voices, these subtle nuances of sound obscure regular lapses of intonation to the point of irrelevance. The Emerson Quartet prove they are worthy of their elevated position in the world of chamber music.


Haydn – String Quartet in E flat major (Op. 33, No. 2) “The Joke”
Ravel – String Quartet in F
Beethoven – String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130 with Grosse Fuge Op. 133