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Faultless: Emerson String Quartet.

Smashing Season Opener

By B.A. Nilsson

Emerson String Quartet

Union College, Oct. 18

You may have thought that the award for Longest String Quartet Made Up of Slow Movements was won by Shostakovich for his final work in that form, but Haydn nabbed it two centuries earlier when he arranged his orchestral work The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross for that instrumentation.

It runs nearly an hour, depending upon tempos, repeats and whether you include an intermezzo Haydn later wrote for a choral version. Although the Emerson String Quartet omitted the intermezzo (which is on their recording of the work) and shortened some of the other movements, it still clocked in at about 50 minutes at their performance of it last Sunday at Union College.

This was the ensemble’s 27th appearance in the College’s renowned concert series, itself in its 38th year, and a wonderful kickoff to the season.

Haydn wrote the piece in response to a commission circa 1786, and a year later his quartet arrangement appeared. Or maybe it wasn’t his: The voicings betray haste and/or incompetence, so the Emersons touched up the score using the original version as a guide.

A gentle introduction leads to seven slow sections, each a wordless setting of brief texts drawn from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. To 18th-century ears, these must have sounded much more plangent than what we’re accustomed to hearing—musical depictions of anguish have come a long way, beginning right away with Beethoven.

Nevertheless, and taken on their own terms, these movements (“sonatas,” as Haydn termed them) throb with unique intensity, relying considerably upon passionate melodies for much of the effect. There’s also a compelling architecture to each section, bringing it to a satisfying climax and denouement.

Much of the accompaniment texture is achieved through ostinato passages, repeated notes of a chord that provide an effective pulse. The Emerson Quartet players skillfully varied the sound of all that repetition with a variety of bowing, sometimes separating the notes, sometimes playing several with a single bow with varying amounts of accent.

Add to that their always faultless technical ease and ensemble voice, and it was an intense, if low-key, experience—one that contrasted nicely with Dvorák’s “American” Quartet—a piece the Czech composer wrote while in the U.S. in 1893.

There’s plenty of room for debate on just how much the composer borrowed from various Native American sources (including birdsong); the lively four-movement work could have been written by nobody else, and there’s a Bohemian feel twined in with everything else.

And what a testament to how far the language of quartet-playing had advanced in a century! Contrast, for example, the pizzicato effects in the sixth movement of the Haydn to Dvorák’s Lento, where it’s a more tightly integrated technique.

This is a piece on every quartet’s greatest hits list, and the Emersons—violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel—played it with the passion that comes from loving familiarity.

Per their custom, Setzer and Drucker swapped first violin, on a movement-by-movement basis in the Haydn, also configuring their positioning to suit the particular work. Union College’s Memorial Chapel offers a glorious reinforcement to their sound, so it was as satisfying as concert-going gets.

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