Climbing Everest Barefoot: the Emerson String Quartet Page 3

"One rationale for doing any recording these days is that superior recording technology enables listeners to hear these works in a way they haven't been able to hear them before—they'll discover something new in a performance of a Beethoven piece they've heard many times, or hear an intensity or a passion that had been masked previously."

"We had, in Aspen, a perfect opportunity to explore this kind of recording," Drucker said. "And in Da-Hong [Seetoo, producer, recording engineer, and violinist] we found the ideal collaborator. Computer editing stations and the ability for us to take each session home made the recording process much more possible this way than it would have been in the past."

"We all enjoy making the decisions about our recordings," said Dutton. "We believe that if you're going to make a recording, you should be involved in it. You still need somebody who can step back and look at the whole. We're lucky that we trust Da-Hong to be that person."

"Because we've been so involved in the editing process on this one," said Frankel, "it gave us a chance to re-evaluate what we really did in those sessions. There are really two evaluation periods: one is when you're in the sessions, and you'll play something four or five times, and you'll make changes in it to the point where you think it sounds better on that particular day. A month later, hearing those five takes, it inevitably sounds extremely different from the way you heard it in the sessions.

"Many times, you might find that you went down a road you shouldn't have gone down. The problem is that when a producer goes away with a marked score, that option of re-evaluation is gone—because you don't have the chance to compare. A painter can paint something and then look at it for weeks before deciding if it was what he wanted to do—he doesn't have to do it in one day, and then somebody puts it on a plane and away it goes. Because Da-Hong uses the technology so capably, we were able to hear all of what we did immediately and take it home with us, which allowed us to make decisions as a quintet."

"I thought it was neat to go about it this way," said Setzer, "as opposed to doing it in the studio, which gives you a snapshot. In a studio, you go in and you record the first movement four times, and by the fourth time you've already gotten tired of it. When you base it on live performances, it becomes a much more creative process. When you have to wait to hear things, you lose a lot. After about 10 seconds, an emotion becomes a memory, you can't actually feel it any more. The technology we used for this project was really liberating."

The gamble has paid huge artistic dividends. The Shostakovich recordings have extraordinary presence—a sense of intimacy that in no way interferes with their re-creation of the acoustic of the Aspen Music Festival's Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall. Instrumental timbres are bright and filled with color, and Da-Hong Seetoo has captured a near-perfect balance of instrumental detail and realistic image size. Save for the applause at the end of each performance, you'd never guess these were recorded with an audience present, unless you accept the ensemble's insistence that their presence imbues these recordings with a palpable tension.

Perhaps it does. The ensemble plays with a muscular intensity that delivers the music with startling visceral impact. Yet for all of the intensity with which they approach these works, the musicians play with remarkable precision and purity of intonation. It's hard to imagine these works played at a higher technical level. I'm not sure such a thing exists.

The Emerson's Shostakovich will not sit well with all listeners, I'm sure. Many will prefer the Borodin Quartet's brawny interpretations, or the refined, comprehensive Fitzwilliam Quartet recordings from the '70s. Both of those cycles certainly have much to recommend them, but in terms of sound quality alone, the Emerson's stands head and shoulders above all. As to the performances, different tastes will hew to different interpretations; all I can say is that I find these enthralling and convincing.

It's early in the year yet, but by anyone's standards, the Emerson String Quartet's complete Shostakovich cycle has got to be reckoned one of the most significant recordings of the year. Sometimes the biggest risks produce the sweetest victories. Savor this one for yourself.