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The New York-based Emerson Quartet are doing a series of concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, centred around the chamber works of Brahms.

I attended the first concert of the series yesterday evening.

Beethoven String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4

Brahms String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1

Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

The Beethoven quartet is a work of great strength and dates from the culmination of his “early” creative period. It has a fiery beginning, in his celebrated “C minor mood”, contrasted by the lyrical second subject, which he proceeds to use in the  development of the first movement (Allegro ma non tanto) .  This work is revolutionary in its dispensing of the customary slow movement, having in its stead a scherzo and a Menuetto in its inner movements. The quartet ends with a rather lively Allegro.

The Emersons perform standing (the cellist plays seated on a podium); apparently this has been their practice since January 2002 (the programme notes even specify the month, although the reason for this decision is not forthcoming).    

The second work was Brahms’ first string quartet, also in C minor. Brahms was always aware of the “giant (Beethoven)’s footsteps” which put him off composing symphonic and chamber works for a long time (he wrote his first symphony aged 43!). He burnt 20 attempts at quartets before he wrote this one (a great loss indeed).  I have to listen to this quartet a little more to be able to comment upon it. Suffice it for now to state its movements; Allegro; Romanze:Poco adagio; Allegretto molto moderato e comodo-Un poco piu animato; Allegro.

The second half of the concert was entirely devoted to the next work, the Brahms Piano Quintet, which was like meeting an old friend. I say this because I heard it for the first time on the local radio in my hometown Goa. Those were the days when classical music was hard to come by(it still is the case to some extent). I taped it off the radio, but missed the beginning, so I grew to love it without knowing what the work actually was!

What a tour de force this work is! It featured Gilbert Kalish on piano. (Incidentally, the quartet elected to sit in the more conventional manner for this work ). It is hard not to go into raptures over it. I’m a Brahmsophile at the best of times, but this work is an outstanding gem, every one of its four movements sparkling like yet another facet of this jewel.   

I learnt from the programe notes that this work began life as a string quintet (with two cellos), then became a two-piano sonata before morphing into its current avatar.

The quality of playing to my mind was slick, very well polished and cohesive. I would love to hear more from this ensemble.

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