A musical journey well worth the effort

A concert that begins at 8 p.m. and ends 2 1/2 hours later is a marathon. And when the program includes two of the great late quartets of Beethoven (opus 127 and opus 131) and one of Shostakovich (opus 133), as did Saturday evening's concert by the Emerson String Quartet in Shriver Hall, it is a marathon -- both for the players and the audience -- that traverses Himalayan summits.

But marathons can be exhilarating as well as exhausting, and that was the case with this intelligently plotted program.


Beethoven's opus 127 in E-flat is one of the composer's most purely happy creations; Shostakovich's opus 133 in D-flat, like most of the Russian master's later works, is a voyage into the heart of darkness; and while Beethoven's opus 131 in C-sharp minor begins with an ineffably sad fugue, it ends in the kind of muscular jubilation that it is possible only after transcending great sorrow.

This was a program with a Hegelian dialectic of sorts -- thesis, antithesis and synthesis.


In recent years the Emerson has worked hard at both composers -- its Shriver concert two seasons ago also sandwiched Shostakovich between Beethoven works -- and this season in New York it will present a cycle of the late quartets of each composer, which are arguably the greatest and, certainly, the most personal in the repertory.

There was never any question that the Emerson players -- violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel -- could meet the technical demands of this music.

They were up to the demands of the vaulting scherzo of Beethoven's opus 127, with its jagged accents and light-footed central section, and the hair-raising coda of the Shostakovich, with its bitter chromaticism pitted against its obstinate D-flat harmony.

But -- to my ears -- the Emerson met the emotional challenges of these first two works less successfully than technical ones. The andante of opus 127 did not sound profoundly serene enough and the exuberant scherzo's inward subtext was left unexplored.

And although Paul Epstein (in an excellent program note) referred to the "sinister" and "terrifying" nature of the Shostakovich quartet's scherzo, the Emerson players made it sound merely nervous.

In previous encounters with the Emersons, I have tended to like them better when Setzer takes the first violinist's chair. (This is the only quartet in which the violinists alternate positions.)

In any case, with Setzer leading the ensemble in the program's second half, it gave a performance of the C-sharp minor Beethoven that radiated confidence as it descended to this great music's sorrows and ascended to its joys.