TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 24 May 2007
To say the least, nobody purchasing this set is likely to regret it. Just at the pedestrian level of value-for-quantity the value is brilliant, and at the artistic level it is more brilliant still. The professionalism and technical proficiency of the Emerson group probably needs little highlighting by now, but these players are musicians first and foremost. Apart from perfect intonation and ultra-perfect ensemble they have added variety to their unfailing beauty of sound. The start of the G major quartet, which can sometimes be a bit of an assault on the ears, is done ideally, with the exploding chords sonorous and majestic. At the other end of the volume-scale there is a wonderful breathless hush near the end of the variations in the D minor, and in this same quartet I don't think I ever heard the enchanting second subject of the first movement phrased so beautifully.
How do they relate to Schubert? For me, Schubert is a composer apart. All his compositions are early works, and in the five pieces comprised in this set I sense a steady advance in certainty and consistency. By the time of the quintet he is fully inside his own individual style, but at every stage of his development there are sequences in which someone or something beyond the merely human seems to be speaking or singing, using him as a mouthpiece, and it taxes even the greatest of his exponents to detect and express these. They are not a matter of one specific idiom, but of several, and the better the interpreters handle such passages the more I find myself longing for some ideal that I refuse to consider unreachable, because I have always heard it reached by someone at some time. One issue is represented by the second subject in the G major's first movement. When this comes round for the second time, in the recapitulation with new counterpoint, the Emersons are perfect for me. However at its first appearance this theme, with its muttering self-repetitions, has a somnambulistic air to it that the Novak quartet on my old LP capture ideally for me, and I wonder whether the Emersons are just a little bright-eyed and clean-limbed. The sense of that grew on me as the set progressed. The great melody from the first movement of the quintet (with Rostropovich on the second cello) suits me fine as they do it, but in the trio of the G major's scherzo while they sing the melody like angels what I want is not people like angels but the angels themselves. I have heard them in this movement before. In a different mode of expression there is the G major's last movement. Schubert produced a similar finale to his late C minor piano sonata, and I would have been more than satisfied with the Emersons here, particularly with the magnificent tone at the end, if I did not know Ogdon's performance of the sonata movement, one of the greatest interpretations I ever heard, with the whole huge piece seemingly taken in a single breath.
The very first and the very last things on this set are especially testing for interpreters of Schubert. The last movement in the quintet, a piece in a very special Schubertian idiom, is my idea of unqualified perfection here. The speed is not too fast, the variations in pace are superbly judged, there is the right sense of a heavy and almost dragging undertow to the rhythm in the accompaniment, and the phrasing of the second theme is something to live for. The set starts with the A minor quartet, and here I held my breath, because with that opening theme we are communing with something not of this world. Verdi, so immune in general to German influence and so gifted with melody himself, explicitly takes off his hat to it at the start of his Requiem. The balance of the melody against the hypnotic wavy accompaniment is perfect here, so is it my absolute ideal? It's somewhere near it at least.
Only one movement out of the whole eighteen seems to me not quite right. The last movement of the D minor is a little fast for my liking, but I could live with that. However the Emersons' fast tempo really does seem symptomatic of a sense that they have missed a deeper tone to the movement, and I felt that in the cadence-theme to the exposition and recapitulation in particular. My thoughts reverted to how this is done by the Gabrieli Quartet on my beloved old LP, with the impression of an apparition of the four horsemen of somewhere that makes me catch my breath to this day. On the other hand, for many people the high spot of such a set is likely to be the slow movement of the quintet, and I can report a reading to rank with the finest here, time held in abeyance as it should be and the control of the sustained long notes perfect beyond perfection.
The set dates from as long ago as 1988, I see, and I wonder how these divinely gifted artists do these pieces nearly twenty years on. The recording is excellent, an absolute necessity for playing like this. The liner notes are also good, except for the one on the quintet, and I seem not to have mentioned so far that we are given the outstandingly lovely fragment of the intended slow movement to the Quartettsatz. Altogether, an outstanding issue in nearly every way. I am reminded of Schubert's epitaph `A rich treasure and still fairer hopes'. These players are young enough to do these quartets again, as they are to do Beethoven's again, and I hope I am still young enough to hear how they do them.