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Brahms: Quartets, Etc / Fleisher, Emerson String Quartet

Release Date: 05/08/2007 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000871802   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Philip SetzerDavid FinckelEugene DruckerLawrence Dutton,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emerson String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 22 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

For sheer executant brilliance, interpretive insight, and fantastic recording, this set needs no aging to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.


BRAHMS String Quartets: No. 1 in c; No. 2 in a; No. 3 in B?. Piano Quintet in f Emerson Str Qrt; Leon Fleisher (pn) DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 000871802 (2 CDs: 142:04)

This is a special release in Read more many ways. First, it celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Emerson Quartet’s founding. Second, it marks 20 years of the ensemble’s association with Deutsche Grammophon, a signal achievement in these troubled times for the classical music industry. Third, it is said to be the Emerson’s first ever recording of the Brahms quartets, a claim that still surprises me, though I’ve found nothing to contradict it. And fourth, it partners what is arguably the preeminent string quartet ensemble on the world stage today with pianist Leon Fleisher, whose recording of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra remains for me the unsurpassed touchstone in this work. Everything about this new release thus promises to make it legendary in its own time.

There is much about Brahms’s music that makes it forward-looking and exceptionally advanced for its time, but nothing more so than its approach to rhythm. To understand this, one need only look at Brahms’s near contemporary, Dvo?ák, whose music also poses rhythmic challenges. Yet in Dvo?ák’s case, however tricky his rhythmic patterns may be, they are “idiosyncratic,” by which I mean they derive from the natural inflections of the Czech tongue and from the native elements of Czech folk dance. There is nothing “natural,” however, about Brahms’s rhythmic constructions. With the possible exception of his Hungarian Dances , they are purely invented, and derive from no known folk traditions. The man must have lain awake nights inventing the most intricate, involved, and convoluted rhythmic interactions imaginable, patterns that are intentionally counterintuitive and therefore of extraordinary difficulty to execute. One would probably have to go back to the 14th- and 15th-century isorhythmic motets—in which Brahms had a keen interest—or forward to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern to find rhythmic procedures of equal complexity.

While progressive elements in Brahms’s works also manifest themselves in areas other than rhythm, this one is singled out because it is particularly relevant to these performances. The Emerson exposes the inner workings of these scores with the magnifying power of a forensic microscope; yet there is not a moment that lacks for emotional engagement or the romantic passions and tensions that drive these works.

Begin your listening with the B? Quartet on disc 2. Right off the bat, Brahms skews the duple 6/8 beat by shifting the accents to the third and sixth eighth notes. Beginning in the second half of the eighth bar, we encounter the crosscurrent of three accented quarter notes set against the continuing six eighth-note duplets. There is nothing “natural” sounding in this or the dozens of other polyrhythmic patterns that permeate the piece. Yet the Emerson incises with such scalpel-like precision that every accent, every rest, and every staccato is heard without a drop of blood spilled between them. Far from bloodless, though, is the Emerson’s interpretive ability to tug at the heartstrings (listen to the Andante of the same B? Quartet), to call forth the Furies in the many passages of doomsday drama (listen to the first movement coda of the C-Minor Quartet), or to communicate the awful loneliness and heartache that come to the surface in so much of Brahms’s music (listen to the Romanze of the same C-Minor Quartet).

High on my favorites list for recordings of the quartets has long been the Sine Nomine Quartet on Claves (whose recent recordings of Beethoven’s “middle” quartets made my 2006 Want List). Yet much as I admire their Brahms, I’d have to say that the Emersons now supplant them as my top choice and recommendation.

Long ago, I concluded that some passages in music were so contrary to the way our brains are wired that they simply could not be executed exactly as written. One of those passages, I was convinced, begins at bar 176 in the third movement of Brahms’s F-Minor Piano Quintet. The whole movement is a ride on the wild side, but what happens at that point is a relentless rhythmic juggernaut of manic aberration. First violin and viola share one rhythmic pattern of 16th notes separated by 16th-note rests, while the second violin and cello share a different and conflicting pattern of eighths, 16ths, and 16th-note rests that occur in between the notes—i.e., in the rests—of the first violin and viola parts. And countermanding all of it is the piano part that is syncopated within measures and across bar lines, and that only intermittently coincides with the string parts. It is so loud and ferocious that many ensembles go for broke and charge their way through it, without the ear being able to detect the lack of exactitude. Most recordings further help to cover the general melee by reaching overload at this very point, so that nothing is heard with clarity.

The Emerson, Leon Fleisher, and DG change all of that, and in so doing prove wrong my theory of impossibility. You will hear this passage as you’ve never heard it before, exactly as Brahms wrote it. The only other recording I know that comes close is the 1966 version with the Guarneri Quartet and Artur Rubinstein, still highly recommended and now available on a budget RCA disc. But certainly this one passage is not the only reason to extol the virtues of the current performance. Fleisher seems to have a special affinity for Brahms, and partnering him with the Emerson was an inspired decision.

For sheer executant brilliance, interpretive insight, and fantastic recording, this set needs no aging to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in C minor, Op. 51 no 1 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Philip Setzer (Violin), David Finckel (Cello), Eugene Drucker (Violin),
Lawrence Dutton (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emerson String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1865-1873; Austria 
Date of Recording: 01/2007 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 30 Minutes 52 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 51 no 2 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  David Finckel (Cello), Eugene Drucker (Violin), Lawrence Dutton (Viola),
Philip Setzer (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emerson String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1865-1873; Austria 
Date of Recording: 12/2005 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 32 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Lawrence Dutton (Viola), Philip Setzer (Violin), Eugene Drucker (Violin),
David Finckel (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emerson String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875; Austria 
Date of Recording: 12/2005 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 33 Minutes 34 Secs. 
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Eugene Drucker (Violin), Philip Setzer (Violin), Lawrence Dutton (Viola),
David Finckel (Cello), Leon Fleisher (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Emerson String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1861-1864; Austria 
Date of Recording: 01/2006 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 44 Minutes 34 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 BRILLIANT---AND BEAUTIFUL! December 5, 2014 By Zita Carno (Tampa, FL) See All My Reviews "I just heard the piano quintet on my favorite Classical Masterpieces channel. I used to play this a lot in my music-making days, and I've always loved it; now Fleisher and the Emersons have brought back a cherished memory of those times. Excuse me while I go and place my order for this incredible CD." Report Abuse
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