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May the Fours Be With Them

Emerson Strings Relish Challenge of Interpreting the Classic Quartets From Haydn to Shostakovich


It's easy to think of classical music as a museum of precious artifacts. But that viewpoint distorts the reality in which they were created.

"What we think of as pillars of classical repertory--Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven--this music was all experimental when it was being written," said Emerson String Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker.

"It wasn't 'classical' music then."

Drucker was speaking recently from his home in New York before the quartet's performance of Haydn, Beethoven and--another experimentalist--Shostakovich on Thursday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"Haydn's quartets are full of surprises, full of sophisticated wit," Drucker said. "His music is a mixture of simplicity and sophistication, and you have to get the right balance in performance. That's the challenge for us."

The "us" is Drucker, violinist Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel, who are currently recording seven Haydn quartets for a two-CD set for Deutsche Grammophon. One of the seven, Opus 54, No. 1, is on the Thursday program.

"It's a very buoyant, vibrant quartet," Drucker said. "The first movement is vivacious, with an optimistic first theme. The second movement is the real jewel for me. It has some absolutely startling and exotic harmonic modulations.

"The last movement contains wonderful surprises with his use of silence in a witty context. A lot of times, Beethoven would use silence to shock people. Occasionally, Haydn did that. But it's more that he's titillating us with expectations of what's coming next. He will often confound the expectations we have, to our delight."

The quartet has played, by Drucker's count, about 35 Haydn quartets over the course of its 24-year existence.

"But that's fewer than half. We feel that Haydn is very important, but recording all of the quartets is beyond our scope of time and availability."

On the other hand, the Emerson has recorded complete cycles of Beethoven's and Shostakovich's quartets, 16 and 15, respectively. The Beethoven cycle was issued in 1997; the Shostakovich, last year. Shostakovich's Quartet No. 14 is on the Thursday program.

"We came to know the Shostakovich quartets later than we became familiar with Beethoven, Bartok or even the Second Viennese School [Schoenberg, Berg and Webern]," Drucker said.

"We came to appreciate the importance of this work, which has been obscured by the emphasis in the West on atonality, on serial methods of composition and an intolerance of multiplicity of styles or harmonic language."

Audiences have had "tremendous response" to Shostakovich too.

"Almost more than to anything we play," Drucker said. "I don't know if that's because we play it better than we play other things or if it's the immediacy in that music, the power and despair he expresses. Even sardonic passages are usually counterbalanced with elegiac or thunderous ones."

There's a raw power in the music that transcends the circumstances of its composition, Drucker said. "It was music created under duress. The demise of the Soviet Union and new knowledge of what was going on in that country made people realize that there were more layers in his music than previously suspected. Maybe there was an irony underlying something that looked superficially simple, for instance."

Beethoven's Opus 131, which closes the program Thursday, is "one of the pillars of the repertoire," Drucker said.

In his late quartets, Beethoven no longer was looking to his immediate predecessors for models and inspiration as he had in his early quartets and even some of his middle quartets, Drucker said.

"He was not involved that much with Haydn and Mozart. He was looking back much further. On the other hand, in some of late Beethoven, he's looking way forward, not that he necessarily knew what would happen in 20th century music. But you have the 'Grosse Fuge,' which Stravinsky characterized as the first 20th century music. There's great breadth in the late quartets."

Experimentation is a theme running through all the late Beethoven quartets, Drucker said. The composer was pushing large-scale structures, expression and harmonic language to an extreme.

"By this time, he was deaf and isolated from the world. He had few distractions from pursuing the development of these musical ideas. He was commissioned to write three quartets and he ended up writing these five gigantic works.

"It seems the stimulus of the commission and some of the motivic ideas floating in his head ended up producing so much music. His imagination at that point was just very fertile for exploring those ideas."


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


The Emerson String Quartet will play works by Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich at 8 p.m. Thursday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $46. (714) 556-2787.

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