Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Emerson String Quartet stands alone in the history of string quartets with an unparalleled list of achievements over three decades: nine Grammy ® Awards (including two for Best Classical Album, an unprecedented honor for a chamber music group), three Gramophone Awards, and the coveted Avery Fisher Prize. After 36 years of extensive touring and recording, the Emerson Quartet continues to perform with the same benchmark integrity, energy and commitment that it has demonstrated since it was formed in 1976.
For their new album, Journeys, the Emerson String Quartet performs two string sextets from the 1890’s, Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky and
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Arnold Schoenberg. This is the quartet’s first recording of anything by Tchaikovsky since the 1980’s and its first ever recording of a piece by Schoenberg. They are joined on both of these sextets by two frequent collaborators, American violinist, Paul Neubauer and British cellist, Colin Carr. Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence owes its title to the fact that the main theme of its slow movement was conceived while the composer was staying in Florence. The work is nota ble for its combination of warm Italian ate lyricism and Germanic rigor with Russian dance and song. Schoenberg’s Verkl är te Na cht is the composer’s first important work and is recognized as a masterpiece of late Romanticism. Unusual for a chamber piece, it is a symphonic poem inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel. “Our new album embodies the idea of “journeys” on several levels,” says Eugene Drucker. “The wide spectrum of colors, moods and compositional techniques in Tchaikovsky’s passionate Souvenir de Florence could be a journey from Russia to Italy and back again. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht depicts more of an internal journey from anguish and psychological torment to acceptance and love.
R E V I E W:
TCHAIKOVSKY Souvenir de Florence. SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht • Emerson Str Qrt; Paul Neubauer (va); Colin Carr (vc) • SONY 88725470602 (61:38)
The repertory for string sextet is relatively small, due probably to the chicken-or-the-egg situation: established sextet ensembles, if they exist at all, are so few and far between that composers are understandably reluctant to write for them. Finding two more musicians to add to an already extant quartet often seems more trouble than it’s worth. So, besides the well-known Dvo?ák Sextet and the two by Brahms, what is there? Names Fanfare readers will recognize include Boccherini, Borodin, Bridge, Dohnányi, d’Indy, Glière (three of them!), Korngold, Martin?, Piston, Raff, Reger, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rubinstein, Schickele, Spohr, and Richard Strauss (the Introduction to the opera Capriccio), but none of these could be considered standard repertory items.
Then there are the two works on this disc, two of the best and best-known of their kind, both written in the last decade of the 19th century. Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence has little to do with Italy but a great deal to do with Russian folksong and dance. It is as full-blooded and richly romantic a work as any of his famous symphonies or concertos. Equally romantic in spirit but many decades removed in its harmonic language is Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, drenched as it is in the hyper-emotional expressivity of Wagner’s Tristan. As Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker puts it in his introductory note in the inlay booklet, “to listen to them in succession is to participate in a journey from tonality to the brink of tonality, from the nineteenth century to the cusp of the twentieth, from Romantic expression to Expressionism.” Hence the title Journeys for this disc’s program. To carry the relationship even further, both sextets open in D Minor and conclude in D Major. Their pairing on a single disc makes perfect sense, but the only other such recordings I could locate are with the Boston Chamber Music Society and the ensemble Divertissement.
The Emerson’s contribution to the Souvenir discography is right up there at the top. My benchmark for Souvenir is the Guarneri Quartet’s astonishing recording, closely followed by the Borodin’s 1992 recording. The Emerson’s performance glows with emotional intensity without ever becoming overwrought, exuding passion with no loss of control. What a pleasure to hear Tchaikovsky’s voluminous dynamic marking observed with such meticulous care. These range from ppp to ffff (perhaps unique in 19th-century chamber music), with virtually everything in between. Equal care is given to rhythmic control, especially in the Finale, where many groups go berserk with the music’s near-delirious exuberance. The melody in the second movement is sung with ravishing beauty (“luscious” is the word that came to mind) by both the violin and the cello, a fact I mention in light of this being the last recording, I believe, by the Emerson Quartet with cellist David Finckel. As of May of 2013, the new cellist (the Emerson’s first change of personnel since 1979) is Paul Watkins, whom I heard in the Quartet’s first full performance with him in Montreal last May. Emerson fans will be relieved to know that they chose wisely and well.
Verklärte Nacht, while a fine performance, does not fare quite as well as the Tchaikovsky. Technically it is all there—textures are transparent—but somehow the Emersons just miss the Angst and emotional intensity the score demands. Individual episodes could also be better delineated. By the end, one does not feel quite transfigured. For that experience, try the performance by the Neues Wiener Streichquartett on Philips, if you can find it. It’s worth the effort.
The only serious problem with this release is the engineering. The first violin is obviously playing his heart out, yet he is often nearly inaudible. Textures are muddy, the overall sound quality rather on the dark side. For comparison’s sake, listen to what the engineers accomplished with the Guarneri Quartet on RCA.
FANFARE: Robert Markow Read less
Works on This Recording
Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet, Op. 4 by Arnold Schoenberg
Paul Neubauer (Viola),
Colin Carr (Cello)
Emerson String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1899; Vienna, Austria
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