Earthy intellect

Bartok gets a suitably asymmetrical performance.


Meany Hall, 543-4880, $30 8 p.m. Tues., Oct. 2

ASK ANY chamber music fan to rate today's best string quartets and the top five will almost surely be the Juilliard, Guarneri, Tokyo, Kronos, and Emerson quartets. As it happens, the Emerson is the only one of these ensembles that hasn't undergone personnel changes in recent seasons. Some changes have been smooth (Jennifer Culp's easy slide into the Kronos' cello chair) and some cataclysmic (Robert Mann's 1997 retirement as first violinist and founding member of the Juilliard Quartet after 50 years—you read that right, 50).

So the Emerson's suddenly become the elder statesmen of the quartet world, and their long and successful chamber music marriage gives a unique depth and authority to their performances and recordings. Founded in 1976, and patriotically named after the writer, the four (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel) are celebrating their 25th season together. They're local favorites and a mainstay of Meany Hall's chamber music series for the past 13 seasons. Their upcoming Seattle appearances will focus on Bartok, dividing his six quartets over three nights (October 2, November 29, and February 6), with each night including one of the three quartets from Beethoven's Opus 59.

Bartok's cycle is the 20th century's chief contribution to the quartet tradition. The quartets are rooted in the musical idioms of Bartok's native Hungary, spiced with thrillingly asymmetrical Balkan dance rhythms and imitations of indigenous instruments. At the same time, they're also constructed with painstaking intricacy—filled with canons, fugues, motivic transformations within and across movements, and structures based on classical mathematical formulas such as the Golden Mean or the Fibonacci series. "The melodic world of my string quartets does not differ essentially from that of folk songs," Bartok once wrote, "[but] in the quartets I go in for excessive concentration." The composer achieved a stunning balance between Dionysian and Apollonian elements. These are both the most viscerally earthy and the most intellectually rigorous quartets ever written.

Bartok's quartets have been at the heart of the Emerson's repertory from the beginning. To celebrate the composer's centennial in 1981, they played all six in a single evening—three and a half hours, including two intermissions. In Seattle, the Emerson will play them in order, so next Tuesday we'll hear the First and Second quartets. The First is an early work, lurid and intense but still Viennese in influence. The Second explodes in its central fast movement; Bartok gave it a relentless drive that was unprecedented at the time and still shocks listeners.

The Emerson like to dig deep into a composer's work, and their most renowned recordings are their complete sets: Beethoven's 16 quartets, the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and Shostakovich's 15. They recorded all six of Bartok's in 1988 for Deutsche Grammophon. As musicians, their ability to combine clarity and muscle, polish and excitement, is unequaled. They seem to take you right into the composer's brain. Listening to their recordings, I'm convinced that this must be exactly how the composer wanted his quartets played—as if the four middlemen were eliminated and I was getting his thoughts directly.

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