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String Theory

How does the Emerson String Quartet—winner of the Avery Fisher Prize—work so well as a group? By not really functioning as one.

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Emersonians: Lawrence Dutton (viola), Eugene Drucker (violin), Philip Setzer (violin), and David Finckel (cello).  

If the classical-music world has an Oscar to bestow, it is arguably the Avery Fisher Prize, established in 1974 and periodically awarded to prominent instrumentalists. No one actually competes or applies for the prize, which is given in recognition of excellence alone—and previous Fisher winners such as Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Murray Perahia, and Richard Goode are indisputably excellent musicians. This week, the purse of $50,000 and the prestige attached to it go to the Emerson String Quartet, the first chamber group to win.

Or perhaps the Emerson, like all first-class string quartets, really isn’t a “group” at all but a single instrumental body. I rather like the pithy description of the quartet once offered by Max Wilcox—the Emerson’s longtime record producer—who has probably heard it in action more than anyone: “What you’ve got is a very strong marriage of four very strong individuals.”

Stability among the ranks is one explanation for that. This particular marriage began in 1979, when the present personnel first came together three years after the quartet was founded. Back then, I felt that the Emerson’s playing was perhaps a bit bland—that first marathon devoted to the complete Bartók quartets was an impressive tour de force, but the music’s dangerous edge seemed to be missing. As time passed and the marriage became a more perfect union, the group added a welcome sense of crazy adventure to its interpretative approach without any loss of virtuosity, as amply demonstrated by its recent Shostakovich cycle, both live and recorded. It’s actually uncanny at times, listening to four interwoven strands of instrumental rhetoric articulated with such individuality yet molded into a unified statement that presents each piece as a compelling entity.

“I see nothing wrong with encouraging elitism in these tough times for classical music.”

You can also hear that process at work on the Emerson’s latest Deutsche Grammophon recording, of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross, one of the more unusual works in the quartet repertory. This 70-minute piece consists of seven slow movements, each meditating on a comment made by Jesus during his Crucifixion. Haydn achieves an astonishing amount of instrumental variety and expressive intensity considering the limitations he has set for himself, and the performance here is equally resourceful in communicating the music’s vibrancy and interior wonder—a timely spiritual antidote to the rather more sensational depiction of the Crucifixion now exciting moviegoers at a theater near you. I expect there will be similar musical rewards to savor later this month at the Emerson’s concerts in Alice Tully Hall, on April 14 and 28.

No doubt we’ll now hear grumbling from some culture watchdogs that the Avery Fisher Prize is a typical tool of the Northeast classical-music Establishment and that the Emerson String Quartet, for all its technical polish and musical sophistication, is a pretty square outfit that keeps its hands clean and its repertory choices safe. The Fisher Prize, they say, would never go to such gritty, in-your-face groups as the Kronos or Ethel quartets, both mavericks that explore musical ground where no four-string players have ever trod before.

Perhaps so, but I see nothing wrong with encouraging elitism in these tough times for classical music, which is increasingly being dumbed down on all sides. Besides, the Emerson doesn’t exactly shun new music, even if its main brief is the classic literature—the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók, and Shostakovich. Keeping this music before audiences is surely not such a bad thing, especially since the Emerson’s refined performance style has come to set a standard for today’s American string quartets, just as the Juilliard quartet’s did a generation ago. That achievement alone merits some kind of a medal.


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