Emerson String Quartet

Beethoven: The String Quartets

(Digital Download - Deutsche Grammophon #)

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The Emerson Quartet is arguably the best string quartet in America: the most in-tune, the most virtuosic, the most expressive, the most intelligent, and the most exciting. For many, perhaps most listeners, the Emerson is the gold standard of American quartets and its recordings of the Beethoven quartets were anxiously awaited as the climax of its career at the time. But for some listeners, all the Emerson's virtues cannot compensate for the its one flaw: it is profoundly superficial. And while its mid-'90s recordings of the complete Beethoven quartets have all the Emerson's virtues -- its polished intonation in the slow movement of Op. 59/1, its stunning virtuosity in the fugal finale of Op. 59/3, its ravishing expressivity in the opening of the finale of Op. 18/6, its brilliant intelligence in the opening movement of Op. 59/1, its tremendous excitement in all of Op. 95 -- it also has that one flaw all over it. The slow movement of Op. 59/1 is gorgeously beautiful, but emotionally vapid. The fugal finale of Op. 59/3 is exhilarating, but it never actually goes anywhere. The opening of the finale of Op. 18/6 is ravishing, but uninvolved. The opening movement of Op. 59/1 is brilliantly argued, but it doesn't prove anything. Only in the F minor fury of the Op. 95 does the Emerson really get beneath the surface to the seething rage that fuels the music. But when Beethoven's quartets require deep emotions or profound spirituality, the Emerson stays resolutely on the surface, unable or unwilling to acknowledge or explore the greater depths of the music.

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