F minor, Op.20/No.5
E flat, Op.33/No.2 (The Joke)
G major, Op.54/No.1
D, Op.64/No.5 (The Lark)
G minor, Op.74/No.3 (The Rider)
D minor, Op.76/No.2 (Fifths)
Emerson String Quartet
[Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), David Finckel (cello)]
CD No: DG 471 327-2 (2 CDs) Duration: Reviewed: November 2001
Emerson String Quartet The Haydn Project
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
You have the sense when listening to Haydn that youre in very good company; though hes a great genius, he somehow seems like one of us. The words of Philip Setzer. Beautifully recorded, exceptionally well played, the Emersons traversal of seven quartets of Haydn offers a wonderful musical journey 1772 to 1799 in terms of chronology; in terms of musical values and growth, well, Haydns inventiveness and imagination are simply remarkable.
To the uninitiated or anyone resisting collecting let alone disseminating Haydns 80-odd quartets, this 2-CD release could be ideal. It offers a cross-section of Haydns engagement with the form; the Op.20 set usually regarded as his breakthrough in this medium (despite twenty-plus earlier attempts). I hadnt expected the Emerson to play Haydn with quite the poise and lightness that it does there is nothing brash, high-powered or fast-for-the-sake-of-it, not even the finale of Op.74/3, which is certainly ridden, but not for competitive purposes. The finish and polish of the Emerson is one thing; another, more important, is the musicians seriousness of purpose and engagement.
If I have one reservation which seems less and less to matter on repeated listening it is a lack of wit informing these readings, literally so at the close of Op.33/2, brought off with such a straight face as to make the nickname meaningless. On a first listen, it wasnt until the finale of Op.54/1 that I was fully engaged with the Emersons approach; here theres a sparkle, a twinkle in the eye, not evident hitherto that I found wholly winning. The players are smiling. Back then to the selection from Op.20 to now fully appreciate the formality of Haydns design, his individual expression within it, and the Emersons confidential disclosure of it. The heartfelt simplicity of the F minors slow movement is a thing of wonder, the fugal finale testimony to Haydns mastery of procedure.
Although I remain unconvinced by the Emersons rather too tidy Op.33/2 Haydn within parenthesis; other ensembles find more scope the other six works are brought off with real style and affection. It should be noted that Setzer and Drucker take it in turns as first violinist; Drucker is the more demonstrative player, Setzer more integrated. Certainly this casting can make a difference; Setzers decorum works especially well in the opening Allegro of Op.74/3. First-time repeats are observed but only the Fifths Quartet has the second half of its first movement played twice to good effect in a convincingly understated reading that is pointed with uncommon interest, Haydns emotions smouldering until the development and then within an ideal; twice through was no hardship.
Op.77/1 is visionary music, which the Emerson appreciates fully through its new-beginning performance: the door is open for Beethoven to enter the scene. Haydn, proud in the martial opening, searching in the Adagio, provides a scherzo in all but name for the Menuetto (given with Beethovenian bluffness here, and surely an influence on him), then closes with a finale teeming with life and innovation; and a tour de force for the Emerson.
These are crisp, immaculate renditions fully appreciative of Haydns endless discovery, his compositional sleight-of-hand, the song and dance elements, the pathos, drama, passion, lyrical grace and courtly decoration. Having previously felt the Emerson Quartet to be superb combatants, Im not sure I would have expected such a rapport with Haydn. Its a marvellous surprise. Let Eugene Drucker have the last word on Haydn: Its music that has a mission. Its not there simply to entertain, its there to unfold a narrative or to engage in discourse and improve the listener, in true Enlightenment fashion.