The Endlessly Shape-Shifting Emerson String Quartet

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 08.06.12 in Spotlights

Beethoven: The String Quartets

Emerson String Quartet with Betsy Norden

The Emerson Quartet has spent decades as a nimble monument. For nearly 30 years, these four friends — violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel — have fused their musical identities into the world’s longest-lived and, really, only A-list string quartet. Now, the quartet is losing Finckel, the hardest-working man in the classical music business, who has decided to focus on four or five other full-time jobs. And for the first time in virtually their entire career, the three remaining members will have to make room for a new man in their lives: Paul Watkins. It’s a good moment to review an astonishingly encyclopedic discography, which includes an armful of fat, multivolume sets and a boundless pool of miniscule details.

You need only listen to the explosive opening seconds of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8, Op. 59. No. 2 to sense the group’s devotion to specificity. The piece begins in shock. Two violent chords and then a series of frantic attempts to find a rhythmic footing amid gushes, silence, and a roiling current of 16th notes. The score is a touchstone of western music, but the Emerson plays it as a perilous improvisation. Mad staccato flights, sudden bouts of melancholy, bursts of uproarious joy — all these brutal extremes coexist with playing of matchless elegance.

A few long-running criticisms of the group are illuminating: They are pampered Americans and so have no access to the distinctive torment of, say, Shostakovich. They are mechanical virtuosos and slick generalists, indiscriminately slathering vastly different kinds of music in the same warm homogeneous tone. None of this is true. If the Emerson Quartet has overshadowed or outlasted its peers — the Juilliard, Tokyo, Cleveland, Takacs and many others — it’s because they play so much, and plunge so deeply in each composer’s stylistic world. They came to Haydn relatively late, but quickly became comfortable with his impish warmth and vinegary wit. They are equally at home with the searing austerity of Webern, with Bach fugues, and with the heated effusions of Dvorak.

Their enthusiasm for the immersive approach led them to perform all six mountainous Bartók quartets in a single marathon day, and to make a recording that is exquisitely attuned to the scores’ concentrated intensity. You could enter Bartók’s world almost anywhere — the all-plucked “allegretto pizzicato” fourth movement of the fourth quartet sizzles with fierce precision, for instance — but this is one collection that’s worth experiencing the way you would read a book, complete and in order, because it traces the brilliant arc of a difficult life.

The Emerson Quartet can play with breathtaking unity, every directional change of the bow miraculously synchronized, every accent weighted just so. Just how tight the ensemble is can be heard in an ebullient version of Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings that the composer wrote when he was still a teenager In concert, the Emerson has performed it with the excellent St. Lawrence String Quartet, but in the studio, the group teamed up with itself, to thrilling effect.

But as the players like to say, “Blending is easy.” The greater challenge is for four personalities to play together and yet remain distinct. “You wouldn’t want to see a play with four of the same character,” the violinist, Philip Setzer once told me.

That sense of the string quartet as chamber drama permeates the recordings of Shostakovich’s complete quartets, which were made in front of rapt audiences at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. Forget about consistency of tone or continuity. In these quartets, even the most gleeful passages contain a streak of horror, and even the gloomiest are shot through with laughter. Many Shostakovich mavens prefer the authentically Russian recordings that the Borodin Quartet made during the composer’s lifetime — dark, gnashing performances steeped in the terrors of life in the Soviet Union. The Emerson Americanizes this music — or universalizes it, perhaps — by showing that Shostakovich’s mixtures of banality and depth, of exaltation and numbness, travel very well. These performances are less desperate but subtler than the Borodin’s, and equally searching. The Emerson players need every ounce of their legendary flexibility in the Seventh Quartet, a one-movement memorial to the composer’s wife Nina that packs every conceivable stage of grief into twelve bristling minutes.