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


  1. I was very interested to hear your thoughts about homogeneous blend vs. shifting spotlight. I myself, while amazed as always by the ESQ’s flawless technique, beauty and imagination, was struck by the unusual balance among the instruments, especially in the Ives. I polled everyone I knew in the audience, and the responses ranged from “I heard the viola part for the first time” to “I thought the viola overbalanced the 2nd violin and cello.”

    Witnessing their Beethoven Op. 127 was certainly a heavenly experience for me. I have to say, I really like their Beethoven box set. To hear Eugene Drucker’s solo passage at the end of the 1st movement of the Harp Quartet Op. 74 is to almost disbelieve the evidence of one’s ears – just dazzling, and so fiercely beautiful.

    Comment by Marika F-H — January 26, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    • Hi Marika,

      I too like their ability to blend, which is superb.

      But I also think their ability make a particular part stand out is one of the Emerson’s virtues. It is like voicing counterpoint for clarity. Not everything gets or deserves equal weight or prominence.

      And the Beethoven cycle set is indeed a winner, though they use Beethoven’s own tempi, which some people find too fast or question the validity of.

      Thanks for reading an writing — and for contributing to the quartet scene here.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 27, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

      • I asked them about their Beethoven tempi a few years ago, and they said it involved a lot of splicing, and that they don’t take a lot of those tempi in performance. But it’s interesting to hear what Beethoven may have had in mind.

        And I was too oblique in my previous comment, seemingly; when I said unusual blend, I meant unusually prominent viola, especially in the Ives (I loved it). Mr. Dutton told me he was trying to cover up the noise of the fan. I’ll try that line on my quartet-mates 🙂

        Comment by Marika F-H — January 27, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

  2. My favorite Emerson recording is hands down their Bartok cycle. As for last Friday’s concert, I was shocked that they actually sold me on the Ives. On paper and in the one recording I know, it’s clunky, undergrad fluff, with no evident traces of the nascent modern master. But that is not what I heard when Emerson played it. It was joyous, exuberant Americana, most definitely worthy of the performance it received. The Dvorak was something of a let down–next to the Ives, I liked how it made me think about the different nationalist strains romanticism took on in the late 20th century, but I would have preferred one of his more exciting quartets (No. 12 in F, Op. 96?) on this program. The Beethoven was nirvana for any chamber music fan–impeccable. I most enjoyed the communication between Dutton and Finckel, low strings playing doesn’t get any better. Re: the Union Theater, it was nice to see it packed for once!

    Comment by Brian H — January 26, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    • Hi Brian,

      I agree with almost everything you say except that I found the Dvorak a refreshing change from some other thicker readings. But is it the best Dvorak? No, on that we can agree. It will be interesting to see how their recorded Dvorak cycle sounds.

      The Emerson did make the Ives sound better than it is, something I also think Richter used to do with a lot of Rachmaninoff preludes. It’s a great gift.

      Their Bartok cycle is indeed great, you’re right. My own preference, however, is for their Shostakovich cycle, which I think stands heads above others. They excel at modern music (I also love their Prokofiev disc) but I also love their late Schubert cycle for its drive.

      And it was welcome to see the Wisconsin Union Theater filled — especially for such a great concert.

      Thanks for reading and writing.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 26, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

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