Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 1-6
Emerson Str Qrt
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 000815602 (2 CDs: 149:13)
First released in 1990, but now reissued at a lower price, this set has received a great deal of critical acclaim over the years, and deservedly so. As far as their 20th-century repertoire goes, I’m not a big fan of the Emerson’s Shostakovich cycle, which is played with brilliant technique but—to my taste—lacks a necessary degree of Slavic soul; on the other hand, their precision, attention to detail, and keen ensemble work wonders with Bartók’s leaner, terser mode of expression.
I’ve enjoyed these performances for many years but, for comparison’s sake, I dug out my old Hungarian Quartet LPs (fortunately the set has been reissued on CD by DG), and side by side listening revealed the Hungarians’ looser, albeit dramatic approach. In the First Quartet, for example, the Emersons negotiate the many small tempo adjustments without sounding finicky, and keep the music moving forward; the Hungarians take a few liberties with pauses and tempos, allowing for greater contrasts between episodes, but lessening the accumulated tension. In general, the Hungarians have a better feel for the folk elements liberally applied throughout the six quartets, and they tend to exaggerate more of the mysterious and atmospheric passages, as in the Second Quartet’s third movement, or the delicacy and wonder that opens the Third Quartet. And they suggest a sadness in the closing pages of the Sixth Quartet that is quite different from the intensity that the Emersons generate.
The Emersons, meanwhile, really dig into the many animated episodes—they take the Second Quartet’s Allegro molto capriccioso at a whirlwind speed, crisply attack the opening of the Fourth Quartet (notice those slashing double stops) and blow through the second movement like a dust storm. But speed is not an issue, since they are able to consistently articulate rhythmic accents cleanly, follow Bartók’s roller-coaster dynamics faithfully, and provide clarity to his varying textures. That they are able to sustain such a high level of excitement and, perhaps more importantly, surprise, in these well-known works elevates this set to classic status.
FANFARE: Art Lange