Emerson Quartet Works Its Magic With Dvořák

Michelle Dulak Thomson on June 29, 2010
Old World — New World

Something like a quarter century ago, I bought a CD of Dvořák string quartets that had the words “American Quartet” prominently displayed on its front. Only later did I discover that the American Quartet was the ensemble; the Dvořák “American” quartet that I meant to buy wasn’t even on the menu. The two other quartets that were there, though, made me avid for more Dvořák chamber music, and I went on to discover an entire cache of marvelous music that I’d never heard of.

The Emerson Quartet’s new three-CD Dvořák box might work the same magic on another set of listeners. The title (“Old World — New World”) practically shouts the presence of the “American” quartet. But it isn’t actually in there. The Emersons are among that small minority of veteran ensembles that don’t like to re-record things. (Nearly 25 years ago, the then-young Emersons recorded eight string quartets for Book-off-the-Month Records, the “American” being one of them. Those recordings got licensed to Deutsche Grammophon once the quartet signed on with the label, where they’ve been ever since.)

Listen to the Music

String Quartet No. 10
II. Dumka. Andante con moto

Cypresses for String Quartet
No 4: Poco adagio

So what we have here is most of the late-string-chamber Dvořák, minus the “American” quartet. And it’s rich territory. The Emersons give us the quartets Opp. 51, 61, 105, and 106. None of these is exactly common in concert, though it’s not always clear why not. Op. 51 is a generous, open-hearted piece full of great tunes; so far as I can tell, the only reason it’s less well-known than the “American” is that it’s maybe 10 minutes longer.

The other three quartets need a bit more salesmanship. Op. 61 was damned from the get-go for being insufficiently Czech. Listen to it now, and you hear just good music: strong, with the sort of joyous piling-on that quartet players expect from Dvořák. There’s a touching slow movement and a Mendelssohnian scherzo.

Op. 105 is more in the “American” vein, except that it hasn’t got the indelible melodies; the scherzo, though, is one of those once-heard, never-forgotten pieces. And Op. 106 is really love-it-or-hate-it territory. (I am in the “love it” camp; for me, this is the richest of all of Dvořák’s chamber works.) It’s one moment chipper and the next spinning out of control; there are things so crude you recoil, and things so exquisitely crafted that you sit marveling long afterward.

The Emersons were kind enough to put something in the place the “American” quartet would ordinarily have occupied. They chose the Op. 97 “American” quintet, the two-viola quintet that belongs to the same period and has the same sweet pentatonic melodic vein. The extra violist is Paul Neubauer. (Lawrence Dutton and Paul Neubauer — now that’s a viola dream-team.) The liner notes are very clear about which violinist plays first or second (the Emerson violinists switch off), but never reveal who plays which viola part in Op. 97. My guess is that Neubauer is playing second, and therefore deserves credit for the marvelously velvety opening viola solo.

And then there are the “Cypresses.” These are pieces with a long history. Originally they were songs; Dvořák eventually remade eight of them into something publishable. But he liked the originals enough to turn all of them into string quartet fodder.

It’s maybe unfair to the Emerson Quartet to say that the “Cypresses” are the best thing in this set. All the same, that’s how it is for me. I had my Dvořák epiphany a long time ago.