Dallas — The Emerson String Quartet’s Monday performance marked their first Dallas appearance since Welsh cellist Paul Watkins joined the quartet last May, replacing David Finckel. Finckel, along with his wife Wu Han, appeared in recital in Ft. Worth earlier this month; read the review here.
Before the concert, which was presented by Dallas Chamber Music, there was plenty of buzz about how the new guy would fit in with the others. Watkins represents the first personnel change for the group since 1979.
The verdict: Paul Watkins has some big shoes to fill, and while there is still a bit of wiggle room in the toes, he is growing into them nicely.
The Emerson Quartet is known for its outstanding technical precision, and Monday night’s concert was no exception. First on the program was Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat major, K. 428. While there have certainly been more moving and even more musically interesting performances of Mozart, the four got the Mozartean style spot-on. Violinist Eugene Drucker, playing the first part, made interesting vibrato choices, beginning sustained notes in the second, Andante movement without vibrato and beginning the vibration well after the attack. This strategy creates extra dramatic tension for the listener. Details such as this were evident throughout the performance—while they may not have been especially daring choices, they were well-thought-out. That, indeed, was the overall effect of the Mozart—thoughtful, stylistically accurate, but not always emotionally engaging.
There was one notable exception: violist Lawrence Dutton had lots to do in the Mozart, and that was a gift to listeners. While each musician in the quartet is very fine, Dutton’s playing Monday night was consistently extraordinary. The sound he produced was near-ideal: rich, resonant, and full, and his bow control is well-nigh magical.
Second on Monday’s program was the 14th of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to the cellist of the Beethoven Quartet, the group who premiered all but the first of the quartets. Perhaps as a result, the work has an unusually prominent cello part, and it is here that listeners were truly able to evaluate Paul Watkins’ playing. Much of what he did was musically and technically exciting, and he promises to bring new energy to a group that has been playing together for decades. He has not fully integrated into the ensemble, to be sure—he’s only been playing with them for a year, and the others have been playing together since Watkins was a schoolboy. But that will come with time
The highlight of the evening, surprisingly, was the Mendelssohn Quartet in F minor, Op. 80. For those who associate Mendelssohn with sparkling gaiety, the darkness of this seldom-performed quartet can come as a shock. He wrote it, though, as a musical eulogy to his beloved sister Fanny, and it is as if his grief over her death is made manifest in this piece. Felix Mendelssohn himself died at the age of 39, two months after composing this quartet, and only six months after his sister’s death.
The Emerson Quartet’s performance was as correct as is expected of this ensemble, but also was profound, seemingly inviting listeners to meditate on mortality.