The Emerson Quartet celebrates with Brahmsby Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
Brahms: Complete String Quartets; Piano Quintet in F Minor--Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 8718)
I grew up thinking it was a ketchup jingle, but turns out it's a Carly Simon song: "Anticipation...is makin' me wait."
I always think of it when I think of Johannes Brahms--how the mid-19th century public must have been anticipating the great composer's first symphony. Living with the ghost of Beethoven led Brahms to feverishly rework and revise his symphony to the extent that he reached age 43 before anyone got to hear it.
He was almost as intimidated by Beethoven's string quartets. Brahms worked on his earliest quartets for years before he felt they were fit for public consumption. As a matter of fact, he admitted to having written and destroyed at least 20 quartets before producing what would be his first published quartet.
A lengthy gestation period isn't the only thing Brahms' quartets have in common with his symphonies. While they may start with a "traditional" string quartet sound, very quickly Brahms' harmonies make you think you're hearing way more than four instruments. And as you continue to listen, you get the sense that you're hearing not a string quartet, but a string quartet arrangement of an epic symphony.
In the extremely capable hands of the Emerson String Quartet, I could hear the orchestra in the first of the two quartets published as Brahms' Opus 51. A wind chorale here with clarinets and bassoons, now flutes and oboes, a handoff to the horns, and maybe an exchange of fanfares, alternating trumpets with violins.
Though I can imagine an orchestra in places, I should emphasize that the string sound of the Emerson Quartet lacks nothing. It's by turns warm and dark, clear, bright and gossamer.
This CD was released to coincide with the Emerson's 30th anniversary season. Along with all three of Brahms' string quartets, it also includes his Piano Quintet in F minor with Leon Fleisher. It comes on the heels of a landmark for Fleisher as well. In the 1960s, Fleisher ranked as one of the world's leading pianists. Then a repetitive stress injury left him unable to use his right hand. He was forced to redesign his career and spent 40 years playing only literature for the left hand. Just a few years ago, thanks to Botox injections, he resumed performing and recording using both hands, and he was soon back up to international performance caliber--as you can hear on the CD.
The Emerson Quartet's violist, Lawrence Dutton, says that when he was a student, he spent a lot of time hanging out with people who were into chamber music. "We used to get together and read chamber music," he says, "sometimes the whole night."
That's not the kind of all-nighter one usually associates with college students, but Dutton, cellist David Finckel and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have that in common with Johannes Brahms, who loved working his way through stacks of music, both familiar and unfamiliar, with his friends. There's a shared spirit of exploration here, the kind of fearlessness that comes from three decades of intimate collaboration and joyful music-making at all hours.