The music is still the prime interest, of course. But Tuesday’s appearance by the Emerson String Quartet, closing the Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s 2012-13 season, must also be noted as the final full concert with its cellist for 34 years, David Finckel. Next week at the Smithsonian Institution, he will share the cellist’s chair with his successor, Paul Watkins, in the Schubert Quintet in C, then turn over the chair exclusively to Watkins. Remarkably, that will be the quartet’s first personnel change since 1979.
If there was any tension in the ensemble over this radical change, it could not be detected in the opening performance of Mozart’s Quartet in D, K499. This quartet was written in 1786, between his six “Haydn Quartets” and his final three “Prussian Quartets.” It finds Mozart at the height of his powers, composing with a free-flowing ease and mastery that was picked up and mirrored by the Emerson’s genial and unforced performance. It flowed seamlessly but pointedly through the first movement’s major-minor transitions, while the slow movement, often called tragic, was given a more solemn traversal. The high-spirited Finale was spun out with guarded exuberance and high polish.
The 1926 Lyric Suite by Alban Berg was also the product of a composer at the very summit of his technical and artistic powers. It is musical testimony to a clandestine love relationship, with the six movements bearing such markings as loving, passionate and desolate.
But because of Berg’s adherence to the 12-tone ideology, it gave a rootless feeling to the resultant dissonant music. Even though painstakingly developed, it still seems rhetorical, like it was intellectually engineered rather than composed from the heart.
The Emersons poured everything they had into the performance, spotlighting the music’s intriguing rhythmic inventiveness, subtle melodic and dynamic contours, and sly references to other music like the Viennese waltz and Wagner’s “Tristan.” But even their artistry could not enrich Berg’s sonic palette beyond varying shades of gray, and I was left with memories of music I could admire only for its excellent craftsmanship.
There were no such limitations in the enjoyment of the closing Dvorak Quartet No. 9 in D minor, Op. 34. The rhapsodically flowing first movement is dominated by two lovely themes, one boldly flowing and the other gentler, yet still captivatingly lyrical. Throughout the performance the Emersons played with a wonderful warmth and radiance befitting Dvorak’s Bohemian spirit. A further Bohemian element was the lilting Polka that joyously filled the quartet’s Scherzo function.
The exploratory Adagio movement was probingly broad-ranging, with a rich, warm viola rumination over pizzicato cello at its heart. The Finale was quite brief, but the sprightly bouncing insistence of its lyrical progressions seemed wholly appropriate to conclude the performance, a spontaneous delight .