Haydn, String Quartets
Bartók, String Quartets
That the next chapter has opened is a reassuring thought, for if we have had some complaints about their sound in the last few years -- including very minor blemishes of intonation and a tendency toward stridency of tone, heard again here -- the Emerson Quartet is an American institution. They opened this time with a Haydn quartet (D major, op. 20/4), one that the group has not yet recorded. While their Haydn would not be one of my first choices, the Emersons gave the accents of the first movement a crunchy bite, with some rushing over fast bits accounting for occasional ensemble issues, and playful metric ambiguity in the slender third Menuetto. The second movement was moving, not too gloomy and played without their accustomed zing in the tone, with a variation that featured Finckel nicely in a solo. They also had fun with the finale, its funny false starts and squawking motifs.
The Emerson's recording of the six Bartók quartets is not among my favorites either, but their take on this composer has improved over the years. This time they returned to the third quartet, and it was just as sharp and unified as when they performed it in 2008: the buzzes of the night music section, the ethereal serenade, the sighing glissandi, the folksy trills of the second movement, the lush and perfectly tuned dissonances of the third, the thrilling and ultra-fast precision of the finale. One might wonder how Finckel's successor, Paul Watkins, could possibly fit into this music, so lived in over so many years. It will take time, but it is possible, as violist Geraldine Walther showed when she joined the Takács Quartet.
Philip Kennicott, With a new member, Emerson String Quartet is still masterful (Washington Post, May 13)
The Smithsonian Associates will continue to host the Emerson Quartet's series at the National Museum of Natural History next season.