Emersons (Plus 2) Retrace Epic Shift On ‘Journeys’ Disc

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The Emerson String Quartet’s newest recording, Journeys on Sony Classical, is its last with cellist David Finckel, right.
His colleagues, from left, are violist Lawrence Dutton and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer. (Andrew Eccles)
By Perry Tannenbaum

Journeys: Emerson String Quartet with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr perform Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky and Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Arnold Schoenberg. (Recorded in LeFrak Hall, Queens College, in 2012.) Sony Classical  

The Emersons have flirted with concept albums before. They’ve even expanded their ensemble for special projects, perhaps most notably when they brought in cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to record the great Schubert Quintet in 1992. Journeys, the ensemble’s latest release, does both simultaneously, programming two very different string sextets written in the 1890s while adding violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr. As Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker rightly observes in his brief CD booklet remarks, the pairing of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht takes us on a journey from Romanticism to Expressionism at the brink of the 20th century.

Emerson Journeys 350It also enables each of the two Emerson violinists, Drucker and Philip Setzer, to do what he does best on the same CD, Setzer leading the more fiery programmatic piece by Tchaikovsky and Drucker taking over the first violin for the moodier, more mellifluous Schoenberg tone poem. Few chamber works can boast opening measures as instantly rousing as Souvenir de Florence, and Setzer launches into the Allegro con spirito with as much fervor as you could wish. Yet I find that the Teldec recording by the Borodin Quartet — with violist Yuri Yurov and cellist Misha Milman — remains more highly strung in the middle of the movement, where Setzer eases off the tension too much, and the Borodins regain peak intensity sooner as the tempo quickens toward the end.

The Emerson account equals the Borodin’s in the middle movements, waltzing gently in the early minutes of the Adagio cantabile before ascending in prayerful transcendence. If the ending of the Allegretto moderato lacks the powerful conviction of the Russian quartet, the slower tempo at the outset allows the music to breathe more freely and intensify more naturally. Whatever spirit may have been lacking in the earlier movements is largely forgotten in the onrush of the concluding Allegro vivace, where spontaneity and celebratory zest reach ecstatic levels. Both the Emersons and the Borodins acquit themselves wonderfully at the end, but the best overall account may still be the Chandos recording by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble, where the cantabile movement starts off as intimately as a Verdi aria.

The Emerson and guests perform at WQXR's Greene Space. (Finckel-Han blog)
The Emerson and guests at WQXR’s Greene Space. (Finckel-Han blog)

Schoenberg twice arranged Verklärte Nacht for orchestra. This new account by the Emersons may be the best argument we’ve heard for leaving his original 1899 sextet, inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem, well enough alone.

 It is a more cohesive reading than those by the Czech Philharmonic Sextet and the Juilliard Quartet (plus cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violist Walter Trampler), aiming for an amorous Claire de lune mood instead of a stormy Wuthering Heights. The Emerson reading breathes instead of pulsates, glides more harmoniously, builds its climaxes more spontaneously, and sprinkles its colors gently instead of histrionically.

Among chamber accounts, the Emersons’ ranks with the elites by the Artemis Quartet* on Erato and the Talich Quartet** on the Phaia label. Both of these other recordings sound more like string sextets, with grittier textures that some may prefer. This Emerson performance is smoother, more orchestral and sublime, yet the dialectic between Dehmel’s lovers emerges clearly when you hold the printed text and translation in hand. First cellist David Finckel – an Emerson veteran who recently was succeeded by Paul Watkins – is eloquent as the man responding to the anguished confessions pouring out of Drucker’s violin. Listening to this performance, you can hear Schoenberg deepening the text and its emotions rather than merely sketching them.

Note: For more information on the Emerson’s relationship with Sony, click here.

*Now on Virgin. The personnel are Heime Müller, violin, Natalia Prischepenko, violin, Volker Jacobsen, viola, Thomas Kakuska, viola, Valentin Erben, cello, and Eckart Runge, cello.

**The Talich Quartet is augmented by Jiri Najnar, viola, and Vaclav Bernásek, cello.

Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Creative Loafing and CVNC.org. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.