New York’s Emerson String Quartet began their performance at Reynolds Industries Theater on October 16 with the two extant movements of Haydn’s unfinished Quartet in D Minor, and honestly, it was over before I even settled fully into attentiveness. I remember that it was gentle, pliant, and lilting; how it would surge forward gaily, pause to reconsider, and then start again with a more bittersweet and lingering stride. I remember how its bouncy cheer, overcast with intimations of uncertainty, evoked a child playing in a meadow as wisps of bad weather gathered overhead. And I remember being floored by Emerson’s impeccable command of volume, balance, texture, and pace; how the music hung in the air with all the eerie volumetric purity of a hologram.
The Quartet was wise to begin with something comparatively short and fluffy, as the remainder of the program was a journey of remarkable musical and psychological intensity. Part of this owed to the program’s focus on “last works,” with their elegiac auras and late-career intricacy. And part of it owed to the Quartet’s incredible command of their craft, which drew out every delicate nuance and dynamic shift with chill-inducing clarity. Their elegantly lathed transitions from silken restraint to numinous force were virtually flawless, and at moments of the highest intensity, it was as if the sound itself were creating the G-force ripples in the wood-paneled walls. The emotional odyssey thrilled me and wrung me out, too.
Bartók’s Quartet No. 6, his last before fleeing wartime Hungary for the U.S., immediately announced a change of tone from Haydn. A mournful, almost jazzy theme wafted from Lawrence Dutton’s viola before the rest of the trio lunged in ominously; the lines snaking through each other like cracks spreading through glass. In the two middle movements, alarming marching figures and springy, boinging pizzicato sections undercut the melancholy with dark comic relief. From within the busy squalls, the musicians bowed out puffs of perfumed harmony. Overall it was freewheeling and depressive and neurotic, as if the music were desperately trying to convince itself that nothing was the matter. But by the last movement, it no longer protested too much. Instead of darting, the sweet, sad melody piled up with a sense of doomed grandeur. Descending plucks faded behind a viola melody like a dying dream, but it ended with an ambiguous glimmer of hope, and the Quartet held the pose as if freezing it for all eternity. “Bartók really knew how to suffer!” one gent was heard to remark.
But Bartók, despite the alloyed nature of his piece, had nothing on Schubert when it came to quicksilver emotion. The program ended with his Quartet in G Minor, and packed in a lifetime’s worth of spiritual ups and downs, with more dynamic pivots and false conclusions than a James Brown song. In the first movement, bounding figures lapsed into low, even tremolos in the violins; whenever it seemed about to combust, swaying tunes picked up in the cello and viola to calm things down. The whole movement split the difference between delicate flutterings and mighty, outsized wing-beats. The cello shone in the cascading second movement, with a warm and breathy tone, almost like a woodwind. Nervy quivers coursed through the taut and jaunty third movement, and the technically demanding fourth, a whirling dervish of daredevil gambits, elicited something approaching a pent-up war whoop from the audience with its final, triumphant flourish.
The Bartók and Schubert pieces were highly contrasting in mood and structure, yet the Emerson String Quartet managed to draw out a through-line: Both pieces make melodic lines dance and sulk on the periphery of an ineffable question, and sometimes momentarily surge together like minor epiphanies before stumbling into the maze of questions again. From a younger man’s vantage I still wonder, will I ever figure it out—life? These pieces reminded me that I will not, and that the mystery is more beautiful than certainty anyway.