This 5-CD set was recorded in live performances in front of remarkably quiet audiences. The Emerson Quartet play with both drive and precision. Although their playing is precise and technically brilliant, I find nothing sterile about their approach to this music. They do not drag the music out, nor do they exaggerate dynamics, but they play it with consummate skill and grace, and with enough enthusiasm for the music to let it speak for itself. By comparison, even the old Fitzwilliam set, so exciting when it was first released, and still a remarkable value, seems a bit ponderous at times, a bit too calculated and measured.
One of my favorite things about the Emerson performances is that the four voices always seem to be equal, and of one mind--the very essence of superb musicianship for a string quartet, and the result in this case of excellent musicianship combined with sympathetic engineering. The recordings were made at live performances, with a really quiet audience. What I find remarkable is the way the engineers have been able to produce such a nice balance in the sound. You can hear the individual instruments, but the sound still has a blend to it, rather than sounding more clinical than life, as some studio recordings of quartets can sound. Still, the recording is rather close, and you can picture the four instruments spread across the soundstage, but for a close recording, there ins not as much extraneous noise as you might expect--bowings and scrapings and gruntings and the like. There is not too much hall sound, but yet the effect is not one of sterility. The sound is close, but not stifling. In all, this stands as an excellent recording job under what could easily have been difficult circumstances.
Yes, this is a most remarkable recording of most remarkable music. Shostakovitch's symphonies can grow tiring after a while, but his quartets have withstood the test of time and repeated listening. Those on a tight budget will get good value from the Naxos set; for about the same price, the Fitzwilliam boxed set (6 CDs) has the advantage over the Naxos of presenting the quartets in order. But for those seeking the ultimate boxed set of these remarkable quartets, this remarkable new release from DG is my first recommendation. It is a winner in every way.