Recording of May 1997: Beethoven: The String Quartets

BEETHOVEN: The String Quartets
Emerson String Quartet
Eugene Drucker, 1st violin, Philip Setzer, 1st violin, Lawrence Dutton, viola, David Finckel, cello.
DG, 447 075-2. (7 CDs). 1997. Alison Ames and Roger Wright, exec. prods; Max Wilcox, prod.; Nelson Wong, eng. DDD. TT: 8:18:02.
Music: *****
Sonics: *****

Though string quartets by Mozart, Ravel and Debussy all provide chamber musicians with reasons to live, the Beethoven quartets keep them together. The string quartet is the medium in which Beethoven most consistently gave his richest, most introspective efforts in all periods of his evolution. Considering that they contain several lifetimes of human experience, expressed through everything from wild adventures in counterpoint to forays into Russian folk songs, Beethoven's string quartets demand to be lived with over a long period if they are to receive the supreme efforts they deserve from their performers.

Now in its early middle age, the Emerson Quartet has arrived at a near-ideal juncture of wisdom, intelligence, and physicality, surpassing most of their previous efforts with a set that's never less than superb, and often sets new performance standards. In fact, this may turn out to be the one most likely to gain all-around, all-purpose recommendations for a single cycle of the Beethoven string quartets.

In attempting to approximate many of the composer's notoriously fast metronome markings, the Emersons arrive at an approach that's brisk, highly architectural, sometimes daringly volatile and explosive, but never too rushed. In the context of the string-quartet world at large, one finds them having the best of several worlds: the interpretive X-ray vision of the Juilliard Quartet, the cohesion of the early Amadeus quartet, and the tonal sheen of the Hollywood String Quartet. There's all that, plus the Emerson's distinctive athleticism and rhythmic eloquence among the four members. They're like champion race horses galloping in perfect synchrony. Though some may prefer ensembles where the members express greater individuality, the Emersons' homogeneity is often breathtaking.

Such technical matters may not initially seem like attributes likely to unlock Beethoven's mysteries. But many quartets can have deep insights into these dense works; the Emersons have the chops to project them to the listener. Hairpin dynamic changes are so effective that you'll think the volume knob on your equipment has been turned abruptly up or down.

All sorts of colorful vertical sonorities emerge from what, in other performances, sounds like a tangle of counterpoint. The sparkling pizzicato effects and other gestures in the first movement of the "Harp" Quartet (Op.74) take on such a three-dimensional shape, the music seems almost balletic. Much the same thing happens in the gently rocking rhythms of Op.130. The anxious, manic qualities of the opening movement of Op.18 No.4 are apparent in any performance, but in the Emersons' the rhythmic precision reveals how much terror is locked into it. This precision also reveals all sorts of unifying relationships among the movements of Op.130, and a fascinating rhythmic development from movement to movement in Op.59 No.1.

Most remarkable is the range of technical feats the Emersons are capable of. Their performance of the more backward-looking, Haydnesque Op.18 No.5 is just as airy and congenial as its Op.18 predecessor is dark and heavy. This sort of range serves the motley collection of 11 movements that make up the masterly Op.131 particularly well, or the even wider range of music in Op.132, which has some bagpipe effects (sounding particularly buoyant here) amid more typical Beethovenian storms and calamities. These are two of the best performances of the set; though the Emersons can be as emotional as any quartet (witness the Romeo and Juliet-inspired slow movement of Op.18 No.1), their readings of Beethoven's late quartets have an emotional maturity and dignity that other performers don't fully acknowledge.

Not everything is terrific. Op.59 No.2 is merely excellent, intelligently but unoriginally played. Similarly among the late quartets, a few of the longer-movement spans in Op.127 seem a bit beyond them—though there's some playing of heart-melting expressiveness in the second movement. And, like virtually every quartet I've heard, the Emerson meets its Waterloo with the Op.133 Grosse Fuge. They leap into it fast and loud, and though it has some fine, insightful moments, the whole is not that satisfying. One wishes they'd work less hard and a bit smarter. But then, nobody gives a really successful performance of this piece, which is perhaps best heard in your mind's ear while reading the page rather than hearing musicians submit to its finger-twisting rigors.—David Patrick Stearns