The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Emerson Quartet’s Dvorak set is a winner and an odds-on bet for a third straight Grammy

June 15, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The Emerson String Quartet has done it again.

The Emerson’s latest release – a 3-CD set of middle and late Dvorak works for Deutsche Grammophon aptly called “Old World-New World: Our Favorite Dvorak” – seems to me to be an odds-on favorite to win a third straight Grammy in as many years. It is that good.

You may recall that the Emerson took the chamber music Grammy for the last two albums, “Intimate Voices” (Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen) and “Intimate Letters” (Janacek and Martinu).

For more about the Emerson and its distinguished, award-winning (nine Grammys) 35-year history, here is a link to the group’s home website:

This Dvorak collection reminds The Ear of the Emerson’s “Haydn Project,” a favorite Emerson recording that I soon hopes produces a second volume of quartets selected from early, middle and late periods of the richly productive Haydn.

Along similar lines, the Dvorak set – can we call it “The Dvorak Project” — covers the mature works, though one can be somewhat sad that the tuneful D minor quartet of Op. 34 is not included.

But that is a very small criticism, no more than a personal preference.

This set – which features works never before recorded by the Emerson (below) — is eminently listenable and full of contrasts and comparisons.

The heart of the set is the last two quartets of Opp. 105 and 106 – big and contrasting works that can be difficult to hold together – and the popular “American” Quintet with an extra violist, Paul Niebauer.

I’ll confess that all the music in the set interests me and even captivates me. I think that the music of Dvorak (below) in general, and his chamber music in specific, remains much underperformed. But I am especially attracted to the Op. 61 quartet, which I did not know so well before this recording.

Also, I am drawn to the dozen song-like miniatures called “Cypresses,” which display a wonderfully accessible originality in this age of shortened attention spans. More groups should look to these works for their programs and as encores.

For local fans, there are also several local news pegs: The University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet, which is about to turn 100, played the Op. 51 Quartet at its last concerts in Madison and recently at its centennial appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall, a performance that was warmly reviewed in The New York Times.

In addition, Madison’s up-and-coming Ancora String Quartet just performed the last Dvorak quartet, Op. 106, on the season-closer at the First Unitarian Society, where it is an artist-in-residence.

Finally, you may remember that the Emerson played here this winter at the Wisconsin Union Theater in a program of Ives, Beethoven and Dvorak (the op. 51 quartet, again). If you recall my interview with Emerson cellist David Finckel last winter, he said he and other members were extremely proud of the then still unreleased Dvorak set.

It turns out they have every right to be. The playing is, as always an exquisite blend of solo virtuosity and blended, balanced ensemble work. It is technically and artistically perfect, as far as I can tell. It captures the warm lyricism with the composer’s use of nature themes (bird calls, trees and rivers), folk songs and folk dances of his native Bohemia and his adopted American summer home in Spillville, Iowa.

Moreover, it is all captured with clear acoustics and sonic engineering that heighten transparency and the dialogue of various parts.

If you like Dvorak, this is a set to cherish; and if you don’t know Dvorak, this is the place to begin. With so many recordings by so many artists available, the Emerson Quartet has nonetheless come up with an “essential.” That is a major achievement these days.

It may no longer be enough to describe the Emerson as the best string quartet in the world. They may just be the best chamber music ensemble in the world. Period.

What do you think of Dvorak’s string quartets?

What do you think of the Emerson Quartet?

And, if you know it, what do you think of the Emerson’s Dvorak?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak quartet or Emerson album?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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