Climbing Everest Barefoot: the Emerson String Quartet

The Emerson String Quartet defies conventional wisdom. They like to take risks, and they use the adrenaline that creates to hone their music-making to a fine edge.

This extends to the composition of the quartet itself. Formed in 1976, the group gave its first concerts in 1977 and settled into its current lineup in 1979, when cellist David Finkel joined. But the Emerson has never settled on a permanent first violinist—Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer alternate those duties.

"We've just always done it that way," Philip Setzer explained. "On my last day at Juilliard, I mean literally—classes were over and I was returning some books to the library—I ran into Gene, who I knew from Oscar Shumsky's class, and he said, 'Do you want to be in a quartet next year?' I said, 'Sure.' And as I was leaving and the door was closing, he said, 'We'll switch.' And I said, 'Okay.'

"It seems natural to us, even though people kept telling us that we'd have to make a decision eventually. I expect we both have an appreciation of that from when we were kids. Both of our fathers were second violinists in quartets—Eugene's father in the Busch Quartet, and my father in the Smithsonian Quartet.

"I love playing second violin; it requires a different kind of playing than the first part. I wouldn't want to give it up. I wouldn't want to play either first or second all the time. And there's a practical side to it as well—sharing the greater demands of the first parts has allowed us to do more repertory."

Ah yes, the repertory. The group has been fairly adventurous there as well. In addition to the standards of the quartet form—Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Schubert—their output has been generously leavened with challenging works by Webern, Ives, Cowell, Harbison, Wernick, Imbrie, and Piston. Nor are they intimidated by the new and offbeat, as shown by their recording of Edgar Meyer's enchanting String Quintet, which they paired, contrary to conventional crossover wisdom, with Ned Rorem's austerely sonorous Quartet No.4.

Even when recording from the quartet canon, the Emerson's approach is unconventional, to say the least. In 1988, they recorded all six of Bartók's quartets, which they had begun performing as a single concert program. Their bravura performances were certainly well-received. The disc won two Grammys, one for Best Classical Recording—the first time a chamber-music ensemble had ever taken the top honor—and Best Chamber Music Recording. It also was voted Gramophone's "Record of the Year."

In 1994, the group was awarded another Best Chamber Music Recording Grammy, for its superlative performance of American Originals: the two Ives quartets, plus Barber's haunting Op.11 quartet.

In 1997, they released the complete Beethoven Quartets in one fell swoop. Most ensembles attack this towering edifice of chamber music one opus at a time—but the Emersons felt the need to confront the quartets as an integrated whole. The group has frequently performed the cycle in chronological order, illuminating the growth and development of Beethoven's personal voice over the course of five evenings. That recording won them another Best Chamber Music Recording Grammy, and was also a Stereophile Recording of the Month in May 1997 (Vol.20 No.5).

In January, Deutsche Grammophon released the group's latest major undertaking, a complete traversal of Dmitri Shostakovich's 15 string quartets. The first digital recording of the complete Shostakovich cycle, it was recorded in concert over the course of four years at the Aspen Music Festival. Yes, recorded live—specifically because the Emerson believes that the audience's intense concentration brings an audible energy to the recordings.