Emerson String Quartet, Journeys

Steve Holtje

By Steve Holtje

on 05.21.13 in Reviews


Emerson String Quartet with Betsy Norden

It’s surprising that the Emersons haven’t previously recorded any Schoenberg, considering the ensemble has never shied away from 20th century repertoire, and even moreso that their first choice is not a string quartet, but his 1899 string sextet, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4.

Using dramatic harmonic restlessness to vividly portray unrest

It’s paired, in apt — and not quite unprecedented — programming, with Tchaikovsky’s 1890 (revised 1891-92) String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70, Souvenir de Florence. The album title attempts to conceptually link the two works; the Tchaikovsky is a journey because the main theme of the slow movement came during a visit to Florence, while the Schoenberg is a psychological journey.

But what really links the works is inner turmoil. While the Tchaikovsky is prototypically Romantic and the Schoenberg verges on Post-Romanticism, both use dramatic harmonic restlessness to vividly portray unrest. The players (violinist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr augment the quartet on both works) emphasize this while giving the Schoenberg enough richness of tone to remind us of the composer’s continuing debt to Romanticism’s sound and gestures — even as he began to overthrow its harmonic language. There are, separately, better performances of each, but this combination amplifies the virtues heard here.