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Leos Janácek: String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” – String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”
Bohuslav Martinu: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola

Emerson String Quartet
Recorded in LeFrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New York (May & June, 2008) – 55’10
Deutsche Grammophon 477 809-3 – Booklet in English, German and French

Listeners looking for a technically well-performed recording of the Janácek quartets in excellent modern digital sound can safely purchase this disc. Overall, the Emerson String Quartet plays with its expected refinement, offering solid readings that flesh out a corner of their repertoire that has long been filled on their recital programs but absent from their recorded catalog. In all, these are safe, professional readings, yet offer no distinctly new takes on the music.

The first quartet is the most straightforward performance on the disc. The opening movement sounds almost like a warm up, with the ensemble gradually becoming more involved in the proceedings. The opening is somewhat blank in its phrasing, the initial idea lacking the impulsive vibrato and crescendo that usually draws the listener in. In the second movement, I could have used a little more lilt to the main thematic idea, but the buildup to the central, ecstatic climax is wonderfully paced, and the arrival itself is a glorious moment. The third movement’s ponticello outbursts lack the last bit of venom that, say, the Hagen or Skampa Quartet brings to the moments, but the lyrical statements surrounding them are nicely phrased and the central dance-like episode is nicely aggressive and macabre. The coda to the movement is quite slow but very haunting for that. The color change at the opening of the finale is immediately striking, and here the reading finally becomes engrossing and imaginative, with a true sense of cinematic structure.

The composer’s second quartet is a much more involved, complicated and enigmatic affair than the first. In this performance, the Emersons bring more imaginations to their execution, taking chances with tempo shifts and giving more exaggeration to the numerous changes in color. Notably at the very opening, the ponticello solos are desperately slow and anguished, and the ensuing con moto presses urgently forward. At the end of the movement, too, the quartet overcomes the almost surgical recorded separation of instruments and achieves a truly warm blend of sound in the moments of respite. The remainder of the quartet follows suit. The multiple episodes of the second movement are woven together into a convincing whole and reach another beautifully played, ecstatic climax at the middle. The odd third movement’s swaying main melody is sweetly played by Setzer, and the fourth movement’s dancing refrain is given true swagger. The ending is a bit of a letdown, rather controlled instead of played with abandon and sounding like a true denouement.

Between the two Janácek works are Martinu’s Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, indeed one of the composer’s finer works, but leaving one slightly disappointed at the fact that the Emerson’s didn’t record one of Martinu’s full-fledged, wonderful and underperformed quartets. Violinist Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton are a wonderful pair in the triptych, technically equals, and playing sensitively off of each others’ ideas. The middle movement of the set it truly special, with its ingenious integration of the opening tremolos into the entire movement’s goings-on. The playful, highly contrapuntal finale brings utmost technical skill from the two musicians, with delicious pointing up of the score’s quirkiness.

Throughout, the recording level is a quite close and the individual instruments are quite separated in the sound picture. What is gained is an extreme amount of detail, with every motive audible. What is lost is a sense of intimacy in the soft moments, and a true sense of blend in the homophonic moments in the quartets. Anthony Burton’s liner notes are brief yet informative. At slightly over 55 minutes playing time, the CD does feel a bit short, but that will likely not divert fans of the Emersons, of Janácek and Martinu. However, there is quite an abundance of choice when it comes to this repertoire, and it is difficult to assert that this disc would rise to the top of my recommendations.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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