Emerson String Quartet – The Haydn Project

0 of 5 stars

String Quartets –
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’)
G, Op.77/No.1

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: November 2001
CD No: DG 471 327-2 (2 CDs)

“You have the sense when listening to Haydn that you’re in very good company; though he’s a great genius, he somehow seems like one of us”. The words of Philip Setzer. Beautifully recorded, exceptionally well played, the Emerson’s 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, Haydn’s inventiveness and imagination are simply remarkable.

To the uninitiated or anyone resisting collecting let alone disseminating Haydn’s 80-odd quartets, this 2-CD release could be ideal. It offers a cross-section of Haydn’s engagement with the form; the Op.20 set usually regarded as his breakthrough in this medium (despite twenty-plus earlier attempts). I hadn’t 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 wasn’t until the finale of Op.54/1 that I was fully engaged with the Emerson’s approach; here there’s 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 Haydn’s design, his individual expression within it, and the Emerson’s confidential disclosure of it. The heartfelt simplicity of the F minor’s slow movement is a thing of wonder, the fugal finale testimony to Haydn’s mastery of procedure.

Although I remain unconvinced by the Emerson’s 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; Setzer’s 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, Haydn’s 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 Haydn’s 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, I’m not sure I would have expected such a rapport with Haydn. It’s a marvellous surprise. Let Eugene Drucker have the last word on Haydn: “It’s music that has a mission. It’s not there simply to entertain, it’s there to unfold a narrative or to engage in discourse and improve the listener, in true Enlightenment fashion.”

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