This really is an astonishing bargain: a first-rate Beethoven quartet cycle, in digital recording of recent provenance, now available in the lowest price bracket.
The quality of the performances is quite exceptional. I have only recently come to appreciate the collective artistry of the Emerson Sring Quartet. Previously I had heeded the admonitions of reviewers, online and in print, to the effect that their playing was slick, superficial "virtuosity for its own sake." Then not long ago I purchased their most recent CD on Sony (the Mozart "Prussian" Quartets) and was simply bowled over. In this Beethoven cycle there is virtuosity aplenty--we would expect nothing less of an ensemble known to play all six Bartók quartets in a single evening--but at least to my ears it is entirely in the service of musical expression. The fugal finale of Op. 59, no. 3, will lift you right out of your seat--an incredible feat of collective bravura--yet the movement's formal outlines are clearly in view and every phrase sings out full-throatedly--even at their blistering pace. Throughout the cycle, slow movements are deeply expressive without being unduly romanticized. The elegance as well as the "unbuttoned" enthusiasms of the Op. 18 quartets is splendidly conveyed; in Op. 59, 74 and 95 they communicate an appropriate sense of adventure as Beethoven experiments with successive redefinitions of the genre; and in the Late quartets they manage to express the cragginess, the whimsicality, the existential angst, and the mysticism without a single detectable imperfection of ensemble or intonation.
Indeed, the Emerson's technical address is almost superhuman: as quartet playing, this is as good as it gets. Yet this very quality, paradoxically, manages to illuminate the underlying humanity, even vulnerability. of Beethoven's most private utterances. Every phrase breathes; every note is placed and articulated with exquisite care for detail. At times, this virtue can be heard as a liability, and occasionally (as in the opening movement of Op. 131), I thought the Emersons came perilously close to "loving the music to death." Some listeners, myself included, would trade some of their sophistication--genuine though it is, and rarely "showy"--for a greater measure of spontaneity. Even this misgiving surfaces but rarely in the ongoing and effortless stream of sheer loveliness that proceeds from these four extraordinarily gifted (and democratically organized) instrumentalists. One listen through their rendition of the "Heiliger Dankgesang" from Op. 132 should convince anyone of the Emerson's musicality, sincerity, and deep understanding of Beethoven. No empty virtuosity here--or really anywhere in this glorious cycle, which now holds a place in my affections alongside the Busch, the Budapest of the 1940's and the Hungarians as the finest Beethoven cycle ever recorded.
No grumbles about the recording, either; the DG/Universal engineers have caputred this group's distinctive sonority--sweet, tart and spicy--with remarkable clarity, and plenty of ambient warmth.
Whatever Beethoven quartet recordings you may already own, you must hear the Emersons. And while you're at it give a listen to their equally perceptive Mozart, Haydn and Schubert.
- Create your FREE Amazon Business account to save up to 10% with Business-only prices and free shipping.