Emerson Quartet Brahms Evening at Carnegie Hall – A Bit of an Off-Night

The Emerson String Quartet was scheduled to present a program at Carnegie Hall on November 6, 2012, but the program was postponed as the hall was shut that week due to Hurricane Sandy – the lack of public transportation exacerbated by the dangling crane across the street that caused the City to block pedestrian traffic.  The program was rescheduled to tonight, January 7, when Nov. 6 tickets were honored.

There were some good things tonight, but overall I thought the Emersons were off their form.  Based on my past exposure to their playing, both in concert and on recordings, I’ve come to expect an extraordinarily high standard from this group, both technically and interpretively.  They fell short much of the time tonight, although more in the first half – when Brahms was at his weakest – and less in the second half – when Brahms was at his best.  The program was String Quartet No. 2, String Sextet No. 2 (with Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr), and Piano Quintet (with Yefim Bronfman).  The program was too long, for one thing, stretching out to 10:30 pm.  And Brahms in chamber music is at his strongest when a piano is in the mix.  Acknowledging that there is greatness in all of Brahms’s chamber music, I think few would deny that the pieces with piano – the piano quartets, the piano quintet, the violin, viola and cello sonatas, the trios – are on balance stronger pieces than the string quartets and sextets.  The soul of Brahms is most strongly present in the piano, and Yefim Bronfman is one of the great living exponents of Brahms.

But to start at the beginning, with the quartet:  I found the beginning of this piece surprisingly tentative in sound, with questionable intonation and rhythmic unsteadiness, not at all like the Emersons in good form, who are known for precision, brilliance, and decisiveness.  The piece got a bit better as they went along, but I didn’t think that it ever really caught fire.  The sextet was a bit better — the addition of extra players gave the sound more depth, and Carr in particular played very assertively — but I thought it only really came alive in the finale, a surprisingly Mendelssohnian romp.

After intermission, things were rather better.  Bronfman gave them the rhythmic backbone that I thought was lacking in much of the first half, and although there was still some slackness of ensemble and questionable intonation, for the most part the quintet went very well, although the ending of the finale struck me as a bit of a jumble.  But it’s hard to go too far wrong with this piece, which is Brahms at his very greatest.

So, what was going on tonight?  I have to believe that squeezing in this rescheduling in an otherwise very busy schedule caught them at a bad moment.  Could there have been inadequate time to rehearse?  Were they too tired?  (They sounded tired!) They were off tonight, and I hope it was just a blip, because I’m a big fan of this group.  They’ve announced that Paul Watkins will be replacing David Finckel, who is retiring to pursue other projects.  It will be interesting to see how the group’s dynamic will change with a new cellist.

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