The Emerson String Quartet, the preeminent American chamber ensemble, is in the midst of a series of recitals at Carnegie's Zankel Hall focusing on Felix Mendelssohn's quartets, titled "A Vision of Mendelssohn." I'd been staying away, not because I don't enjoy the quartet, but because I don't enjoy the composer. Mendelssohn was nearly unparalleled as a child prodigy, and perhaps because he never grew out of the effortless facility that comes with such innate brilliance, most of his music has a glistening surface level sheen and not a whole lot going on underneath. It is always expertly composed, theoretically very interesting, and rarely emotionally satisfying -- a classical equivalent to Steely Dan.
Tacked onto last Tuesday's program of Mendelssohn was the Schumann Piano Quintet, performed with pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and that was enough to draw me in. It was a disappointing performance. Usually the most technically assured of ensembles, the Emersons sounded shaky during Mendelssohn's third string quartet, with first violinist Eugene Drucker sounding particularly brittle and a little bit off. Joined by Ohlsson and bassist Timothy Cobb for Mendelssohn's infrequently performed Sextet for Strings and Piano (this was its first performance at Carnegie Hall), the performance became flat-out boring. Ohlsson gave the most flippant, uninvested performance I've ever heard in a major concert hall, almost as if he were sight reading the piece. It sounded as though he had no interest whatsoever in the music. Not that I particularly blame him for that, though. This was Mendelssohn at his glossiest, and while the piece was certainly an extraordinary accomplishment for the 15-year-old he was when he wrote it, the thrill of prodigy tends to fade after a few hundred years.
Ohlsson didn't sound nearly as flippant in the Schumann quintet -- this is a piece that it's hard not to care deeply about -- but it was a far from gripping performance, lacking in the kind of overheated, unself-conscious drama it needs. In the second movement's march, you should feel as if you've died; in the glorious reverie that interrupts it you should feel as if you've gone to heaven; in the terrifying, fiery section that follows you should feel as if St. Peter realized he'd made a mistake and sent you down to hell. Instead of the fires of hell I felt the lukewarm purgatory of an unconvincing performance.
Luckily, even when the Emerson Quartet is not performing well there's fun to be had: Just fix your eyes on cellist David Finckel and soak in the drama. Finckel is a marvelous player, but he's also one of the silliest performers imaginable, all furrowed brow, raised eyebrow, and exaggerated smile of rapture. I like to imagine him as Inspector Clouseau, forced to pretend to be the cellist in a professional string quartet in order to infiltrate an evil plot, and trying desperately and ineffectually to look the part in order to avoid being apprehended. Hugely entertaining.
More extra-musical entertainment: Paul Newman, in the bathroom, holding his program in his mouth, and washing his hands. "I had a poodle that could do that!" someone said. "I do this every morning," growled Newman, without taking the program out of his mouth.