Brahms String Quartets & Piano Quintet – Emerson Quartet & Leon Fleisher

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Brahms
String Quartet in C minor, Op.51/1
String Quartet in A minor, Op.51/2
String Quartet in B flat, Op.67
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34

Emerson String Quartet [Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), David Finckel (cello)]

Leon Fleisher (piano)

Recorded December 2005, January 2006 and January 2007 in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York


Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: DG 477 6458 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 22 minutes

 

 

The Emerson Quartet presents its first recording of Brahms’s String Quartets as a dual celebration. Not only is this the group’s 30th-anniversary, but the musicians have been recording for the ‘Yellow Label’ for 20 years – no mean achievement. The Emerson’s way of performance is well-known, in that the first and second violin parts are rotated between Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer.

Having heard the Emerson Quartet live on numerous occasions in repertoire from Haydn to Shostakovich and Webern, it is interesting to digest these musicians’ take on Brahms, a composer who breathes distinct warmth.

The recording is very slightly abrasive, which actually makes the experience a little rawer and a little more expressive. Opus 51/Number 1 is in Brahms’s favourite C minor, and there are developmental passages in the first movement that seem to anticipate the First Symphony. The Emerson seems to be intent on focussing on Brahms’s motivic development (one feels Schoenberg would have approved heartily of this account!). The interaction of lines at the start of the ‘Romanze’ works well here, perhaps because of the level of intensity raised. One feels all four instrumentalists are absolutely equal; stillness is evoked that somehow moves naturally into the shadowy shifting of the third movement while the finale’s strength lies in its cumulative intensity.

The Emerson String Quartet. ©Mitch JenkinsDrucker was first violin for the C minor; Setzer takes over for the A minor. The booklet note annotator, Walter Frisch, strangely refers to the latter quartet as “more open”, an object-lesson in the dangers of programme-note writing. He clearly did not have access to the Emerson’s’ recording, for there is an underlying tension at the opening that is only counterbalanced at around 1’20” with the lilting thirds of the second theme (which could have sung even sweeter than is the case here). The strength of this reading lies again in the sustaining of the argument of the slow movement. The pizzicato interjections late in this Andante moderato are most effective, as is the intensity of the finale (Setzer is superb in the final stretch).

Setzer remains as first violin for the B flat Quartet. The hunting allusions of the first movement are made unmistakable. This is music-making that is full of life; one can revel in the Emerson Quartet’s easy virtuosity; the counterpoint exudes joy. This is the best and most involved playing so far (and the standard has already been set as high); the slow movement does not disappoint with its gorgeous chords. Real care has been lavished here. The suave third movement leads to a finale that glows with inner calm and concludes with real serenity. This is among the best recordings of Opus 67 available at the moment (I prefer the Amadeus Quartet, also on DG, for the earlier two quartets, though).

Finally, Brahms’s great F minor Piano Quintet, in which the Emerson Quartet is joined by resurrected legend Leon Fleisher. The principal competition here comes from Maurizio Pollini and Quartetto Italiano (as part of Universal’s Originals series). Actually the two performances are complementary. Pollini is the more distanced player, his more objective (yet powerful) approach contrasting with and acting in symbiotic relationship to Fleisher’s more personal approach.

Interestingly, the Emerson brings even greater concentration for the Quintet, finding both robust territory and oases of tremendous hush and stillness. The gorgeous depth of the Andante, along with its sense of breadth, presents a much more human Brahms than does Pollini. There is, perhaps predictably, almost a surfeit of energy brought to the scherzo, while the finale is notable for the powerful, inward nature of its introduction (sounding remarkably modern and ghostly here).

An issue of major importance, then.

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