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Emerson Quartet's Bohemian Rhapsody

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Janáček, String Quartets / Martinů, Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, Emerson Quartet

(released on May 19, 2009)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8093 | 55'10"

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Dvořák, String Quartets / Quintet, Emerson Quartet

(released on April 13, 2010)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8765 | 55'10"
The Emerson Quartet closed out its Smithsonian Residents Associates series, at the National Museum of Natural History, with a concert on Saturday evening. The program drew its focus from the quartet's recent recordings, music by Czech composers, which has been much at the center of their concert programming, too. The first half was taken entirely from the Emerson's Janáček and Martinů CD from last year, beginning with Martinů's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola ("Duo No. 1," H. 313). The quartet's sound has always been more sinewy, even metallic, than glowing, and some stridency and imprecise intonation crept into the playing of violinist Philip Setzer, who took the upper part. This was especially true in the outer fast movements, like the first-movement moto perpetuo, in which a few pauses in each part were seemingly inserted only to accommodate page turns. The dreamy second movement was mysterious in its folk-steeped inflections: fiddle effects, chromatically odd scales, cimbalom-like pizzicati. The recording, also with the group's superb violist Lawrence Dutton, is more even across the three movements, with fewer clashes in the fast movements but less mystery in the second movement.

Janáček was represented by his second string quartet, known as "Intimate Letters," for its mode of passionate epistolary confession. The subtitle refers to the billets doux that the elder composer wrote to the much younger Kamila Stösslová: because of his invigorating love for this inspirational muse, we have many of the composer's late masterpieces. Intonation issues continued for Setzer on first violin (especially hair-raising on the first movement's final fortissimo chord, for example) and the rest of the quartet in the Janáček. The eerie sul ponticello solos and the forlorn viola solo were highlights of the first movement, with the second movement marked by a plangent tone, even biting and acerbic. Again, it was the slow passages, with their ethereal effects, that were most pleasing, like the passionate but elegiac serenade of the third movement, here wistful and here anguished. The strident Emerson sound, born of an apparent willingness to push the tone near ugliness for dramatic effect, served the ecstatic conclusion of the fourth movement well. These problems are less pronounced in the recording, which is hardly surprising.

Other Reviews:

Allan Kozinn, Stirring the Sweetly Melodic Into the Darkly Intense (New York Times, May 17)

Steve Smith, In Dvorak’s Folk Works, Elegance, Too (New York Times, May 10)

John Terauds, Emerson String Quartet makes Dvorák sing (Toronto Star, May 5)

Edward Reichel, Emerson Quartet breathes some life into Dvorak (Deseret News, April 28)
For the second half the quartet turned to its latest release, a set of Dvořák quartets (and one quintet) called Old World-New World, to round out the Czech holy trinity. Dvořák was also featured in the quartet's performance of Cypresses last season, and while one hears one of the composer's quartets every once in a while, there are many delightful discoveries to be made. Paul Neubauer joined the quartet as second violist for the third quintet (E♭ major, op. 97), as he did on the recording: he actually is the first to play, as if to announce his presence. Eugene Drucker was primarius for the quintet and played with a lovely tone in the second movement especially, but in many ways the two violas lead the piece, as in Dutton's first viola solo in the second movement and with both instruments coloring the third-movement Larghetto variations in a gloomy penumbra. The ensemble sound was full-throated and well balanced. The fourth movement's chipper dotted-rhythm motif is an unshakable ear worm, replayed in my head for hours afterward, alternating with some more folk fiddle-inspired sounds.

The Emerson Quartet's series at the National Museum of Natural History will continue next season, with five concerts from September 26, 2010, to May 8, 2011. More Dvořák will be on offer, this time paired with Mozart, and Haydn, Berg, Schubert, Webern, Debussy, Bartók, Mendelssohn, Jalbert, and Beethoven will be represented. One of the concerts will feature only cellist David Finckel in recital (January 15, 2011).

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