The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Here’s why the Emerson String Quartet may be the best in the world

January 26, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It was the small encore – a Bach fugue transcribed by Mozart — that gave away the key to all that had come before.

There I was last Friday night, sitting in the lower balcony of the Wisconsin Union Theater and listening to the world-famous Emerson String Quartet performing Dvorak’s String Quartet in E-flat major Op. 51.

At one point, I heard the viola burst through the strong two violins and the resonant cello.

At another point, I clearly heard the cello rise up through the two violins and viola.

And it is exactly moments such as those that make the Emerson great.

Perhaps the greatest.

It is typical to talk about a string quartet’s ability to blend together. After it, it was Franz Joseph Haydn, the 18th-century composer and inventor of the quartet (well, all right, Haydn didn’t completely invent the string quartet, but he might as well have) who called a string quartet “a conversation among equals.”

But the secret to the Emerson is that all the players are virtuosos in their own right.

And rather than blend into a thick and syrupy string sound, the members work on transparency and clarity. With the Emerson, you can hear all the parts – but they are not all equal at all moments, and were not meant to be by the composers whose works they perform.

That approach is especially impressive in a Romantic composer like Dvorak, where the temptation is to lean toward richness rather than a leaner clarity.

I wasn’t the only one who remarked on that quality. In fact, at a post-performance reception I heard a local professional cellist congratulate an Emerson player remark on just that quality. And the player deeply and sincerely thanked the cellist.

“That’s what we take a lot of time to do and what we try to achieve,” the Emerson player said.

And achieve it they do.

They certainly did Friday night in a masterfully conceived program that put Charles Ives’ Quartet No. 1, with its use of American folk music, up against the Czech folk music of Dvorak. Then the finale, by turns dramatic and sublime, was Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 127, in E-flat major.

The audience liked what it heard and rewarded the quartet with loud applause, a standing ovation and even whistles and whoops to get an encore: the Mozart version of J.S. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat, from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.”

It was perfect ending with the four-part fugue highlighting the interplay of the individual parts and instruments – exactly what the Emerson was doing, and had done.

In short, the quartet took its cue from Bach, the father of modern classical music. And it worked – as it has throughout the 30-year career of the quartet. Bach knew, and they know that Bach knew and have put that knowledge into practice.

Happily, the house was almost 900 – better than the Union Theater staff expected, especially on a night when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was also performing with the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet.

It should have been a sell-out of 1,100 or so. But that’s another story for another time.

And so are the things I found out about the Emerson at a post-concert reception, including future CDs, why they play standing up (except, of course, for the cellist), and the tie that the quartet has to Madison.

Those things will be revealed here later this week.

So stay tuned.

And let me know what you thought of the Emerson’s performance last week.

Which of their many records is your favorite – Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Haydn, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Grieg, Nielsen, and Janacek (the latter may earn the Emerson a Grammy later this week)?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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