The Toronto Summer Music Festival kicked off last night with a concert by the venerable and renowned Emerson Quartet. The theme for the festival is “The Modern Age”; explained to us by the festival director as meaning the many threads and styles that emerged in the opening years of the 20th century. It might seem a bit odd then that the Emersons chose a programme of Beethoven, Britten and Schubert but in fact the rest of the programming doesn’t seem much closer to the tree with Bach, Haydn and Brahms all featured in upcoming concerts.
Maybe though the Beethoven almost fits the theme. They chose the opus 95. It’s not as obviously “modern” as, say, opus 131 but it’s sound world occasionally looks forward to it. This seemed clearest to me in the opening bars of the final movement where the uncomfortable tension of searching for a new kind of resolution seems to be foreshadowed. The Britten Quartet no. 2 of 1945 on the other hand is somewhat backward looking. The most interesting movement is the long final movement in the form of a “chacony” . It’s meditative and much of the time, while the first violin carries a series of variations, the other three instruments seem to be playing a sort of ground bass. Britten’s love affair with Purcell is very much evident here. After the interval we got a piece that seems just a good, straight, romantic rep piece; Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet.
Theme or no theme it was a very good concert. There’s good reason why the Emersons have a huge discography and series of awards. I continue to marvel at the range of sound colours that a really good quartet can produce. After all, there are four of them playing instruments that essentially differ only in size and yet they can create a whole sound world. I also realised why I get a lot more out of seeing chamber music live than just listening to it. It’s the visual clues of the players keying off each other. To be able to see the musical “conversation” adds a clarity to the structure that one would have to listen really hard to get.
TSMF runs until August 12th. The full programme is here. The concert I’m most looking forward to is Chris Maltman’s recital on August 6th which combines my interest in art song with my passion for the poetry of WW1.