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by B.A. Nilsson on May 1, 2013

Emerson String Quartet
Union College Memorial Chapel, April 28


David Finckel made his goodbye appearance as cellist with the Emerson String Quartet at Union College on Sunday—he permanently leaves the group later this month—in a program that made considerable demands on his talents.

This may be a too-glib statement, because the cellist in a string quartet is the backbone, as is the lowest voice in any ensemble. It’s the voice that maintains a pulse and keeps the others in tune. A voice that once and for all got promoted to solo-attention status when Beethoven gave it the beautiful opening theme of his first “Rasumovsky” quartet.

But that wasn’t on the program. Alban Berg’s Lyric Suitewas, however, and when that kicks into gear with its somewhat frightening tone row in the opening allegretto gioviale, I paid particular attention to Finckel’s work. It was dizzying. Not that the other three players—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton—get to take it easy, but Finckel was watching them with hawk-eyed care, feeding sounds that work on a level unmoored by tonal grounding.

The six-movement piece is a meticulously crafted love letter to a woman with whom Berg was infatuated (and who never apparently returned the feeling), with codes for his name and hers woven throughout. Conflicted feelings peer through such sections as the third movement (andante misterioso), when the muted strings sound like an argument going on in the next room, and the emotionally fraught movement that follows (adagio appassionato), where Finckel was asked to go pizzicato crazy.

Emerson String Quartet

O, the intermission grumblings. “I certainly didn’t come to hear that piece!” volunteered one duffer, waiting in line to pee. Yes, you did. You came to dig your hairy old ears out of the 19th century and discover what music has been doing since then, and to learn that there’s a difference between ignorant dismay and informed dismay—and that the latter is a worthy reaction to a work of art.

Perhaps a false anticipation of tunefulness was given by the opening work, Mozart’s String Quartet No. 20 in D, known as the “Hoffmeister,” after its publisher, who was a friend of the composer. The seasonally appropriate first movement gives us birdsong and toys with us by offering a fakeout ending. The third-movement adagio featured a viola-cello duet passage, reminding us that Mozart was no slouch in honoring those low voices.

Dvorák’s Quartet No. 9 in D, is one of the composer’s lesser-known works, which can only be explained by the immense charm of the five string quartets that followed. He’s such a cheerful presence that even the shimmery D-minor opening has a sense of sunlight breaking through. There’s a characteristically Brahmsian feel to some of it, but a Bohemian character always lurks underneath, and, when Finckel grabs the opening theme early on, we’re reminded that this is the composer who gave us the world’s best-loved cello concerto.

There’s a polka—of course there’s a polka!—there’s a lovely, lovely adagio with an exchange between violin and cello that might as well be lovers crooning to each other. The lively final movement supplies the big finish.

In response to the all-Berg-is-forgiven ovation, they encored with the slow movement of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet, dedicating it to the imminent birthday of Dan Berkenblit, the Union College Concert Series Director Emeritus.