Brahms: Streichquartette; Klavierquintet

Emerson String Quartet / Leon Fleisher

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Brahms: Streichquartette; Klavierquintet Review

by James Leonard

Rich, warm, ripe, and full of wisdom, the Emerson Quartet's 2007 recording of Brahms' three string quartets for Deutsche Grammophon is not only the finest recording of the group's 30-year career, but the recording that confirms its title as America's Greatest Quartet. Here, the Emerson's mastery of ensemble playing is complete. With its easy interplay, impeccable balances, and effortless tempo rubato, the Emerson has the vital cogency of a great jazz quartet. Beyond the technical, the Emerson's wholly unified interpretations are overwhelming. In these late romantic masterpieces, the Emerson catches Brahms' unique fusion of passion, intellect, and sentiment to perfection, expressing his mixture of aggression, expression, and nostalgia with sensitivity and understanding. Easily as good as the finest recordings of the works ever recorded -- the Budapest's, the Alban Berg's, the Quartetto Italiano's -- the Emerson's Brahms quartets should be heard by everyone who loves the works and loves great performances.

Would that one could say the same of its recording of Brahms' Piano Quintet with pianist Leon Fleisher! Unfortunately, while his performance is likewise full of warmth and wisdom, Fleisher is no longer up to Brahms' technically demanding piano part, and his limitations make it impossible for the Emerson to deliver the same quality performance as the quartets. Still, for the high quality of the quartets -- and for the luxurious beauty of DG's sound -- the Emerson's set is still well worth hearing.

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