The Emerson String Quartet was never just a string quartet. It was an establishment, a touchstone, a catalyst. Entire generations of listeners grew up with its recordings, or made one of the hundred and more concerts it undertook each year, with famous collegiality, a habitual date in their diaries.
The playing [on Infinite Voyage] and at the Sunday concert proved that the Emersons are saying farewell at the height of their powers. There have been other great string quartets in the recording era, with their own special virtues. But for influence and renown, none surpassed the Emersons... Their legacy will last far into the future.
With Setzer in the driver’s seat, the Emersons began the evening with one of the quartet’s favorites, Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 in a minor, reminding us of their burnished tone, signature blend, and perfect ensemble, which remains intact after four and a half decades.
..the Emerson’s close-knit delineation of the massed shards of motivic elements the music throws out in its quest for transcendence... The Emersons come to the score as if it were new, hot from the press, and in doing so they recreate the sense of inordinate extravagance that made early audiences so uneasy.
The Emerson Quartet could hardly have chosen a more appropriate composition to encapsulate the special achievements as well as the endless challenges of their chosen medium.
It is an ambivalent reflection, like a Magritte painting of front and back, imbued with a sorrowful and melancholic lyricism that looks Tristanesque and that the Emersons capture to perfection; in each note, each silence and pause they give an overwhelming totality.
Indeed, this performance demonstrated the reasons the Emerson has been so admired over the years: perfect intonation, flawless musicianship, complete unanimity of expression, and a thorough understanding of the spiritual and emotional essence of the music. The performance was spellbinding. In the hall, one heard the special sound of some 400 people not breathing.
...the Emersons give both works warm, lustrous performances... Barbara Hannigan is the soprano in the Schoenberg, her elegance and cool, precise shaping of every phrase perfectly tailored to the keenly expressive vocal lines.
Everyone’s golden hour comes in Schoenberg’s vocally enhanced String Quartet No 2. It’s not usually considered easy listening, though the Emerson polish, Hannigan’s penetrating beam and a vibrant recording swiftly emphasise the more beguiling aspects of a work...the recording makes each pizzicato note something you feel in your stomach. They are a class act and will be missed.
Hard to imagine a more definitive performance.
To play in a string quartet, all four people have to be totally committed to that... You have to want that very badly, all four of you have to want it, and all four of you need to be on the same page.
I think everything in life, everything that’s good, has it’s own natural duration. You choose a time — if you’re lucky enough to choose the time — when perhaps one should think of stopping and looking toward new possibilities before it’s too late to look for new possibilities for what to do.
Alternating between moodily amplifying Penelope’s emotions and playing in unison with Fleming’s vocalizing, [the Emerson Quartet] is going out on a high note.
Their final Chicago stand was a mixed and bittersweet reflection on a near half-century of music-making that is coming to a close.
Kissin and the [Emerson Quartet] shifted gears seamlessly in the changing tempos... One hoped there were plenty of human-rights campaigners in the audience, because this concert’s brilliant finish would surely re-energize them for the work.
Although Thursday night’s concert belonged mostly to the Emerson Quartet, the addition of the Calidore players enabled a performance of a hidden gem of Mendelssohn chamber music.
The several-minutes-long set of variations... was sufficient to remind listeners some features that have characterized the Emersons’ decades-long collaboration: the perfect timbral and dynamic coordination and their ability to bring out the unique character of each work they are playing.
What audience members witnessed in Herbst Theatre last week... was nothing short of superb.
That was another aspect of this group’s articulation that paid dividends throughout the recital: an ability to find subtle touches of phrasing in almost every measure that managed to feel utterly natural, not mannered.
... this collaboration was the most memorable of their careers, almost overwhelmed by Rostropovich’s boundless zest for life, his idiosyncratic ideas about when and how to rehearse, and of course, his legendary musicianship.
The glances and subtle gestures made clear that they were still collaboratively crafting interpretations on the fly after all these years, their subtle smiles betraying their enjoyment.
"ESQ’s performance of (Shostakovich's) String Quartet No. 12 was eerie, and cinematic. The music crept and crawled, with its ominous pizzicato and haunting high notes. In the musicians’ hands, the work reverberated with an existential mood in the first movement."
Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59, No. 2, one of the cornerstone works of the composer’s great “middle period” in which he also wrote the “Eroica” Symphony. The Emerson’s performance... was by turns refined, rhythmically charged, and, in the presto Finale, glorious.
... there are those who’ve got their timing right and somehow manage to go out in their prime. Count the Emerson String Quartet among the latter.
...high praise still holds 10 years down the road. The quartet purrs like a well-maintained engine. Watkins, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton have between them something more than rapport, and together they demonstrate an engagement with the music that reaches beyond respect. Theirs is a devotional ease — a back-of-hand familiarity that teeters on the unconscious, especially evident when in the throes of Beethoven.
...the Emerson exemplified the American/Juilliard/Manhattan style of playing classical music: distinctive voices (not a creamy European blend), assertive interpretations, speedy tempos, edgy, analytical, “inward” playing. Some quartets are really set up to accompany the lead violinist, but with the Emerson, I always have the uncanny sense of hearing all four voices simultaneously.
The playing throughout was remarkable: not just technically brilliant and emotionally profound, but also often admirably brave… Much of the music in all three quartets is austere and bare, exposing each player to microscopic scrutiny, requiring all — performers and listeners alike — to search their souls and face their own mortality. If there are crumbs of comfort, they lie in the sense of companionship.
"At the end we all sat riveted, not daring to applaud. At that moment, the accusation that classical music is "irrelevant" seemed more absurd than ever. "
“The group remains one of our best chamber ensembles, not merely precise but expressive and intelligent to the last ounce.”
"Their revelatory account of Beethoven's Op. 131 at Lincoln Hall embraced the music's strangeness with warmth and humanity."
"For nearly 40 years, the Emerson String Quartet has commanded a certain reverence from music lovers. Its polished and authoritative performances, its comprehensive and mighty discography, its fearless embrace of the new and unusual as well as the classics — all have placed this string quartet high in the pantheon of chamber music."
“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: The “old” Emerson String Quartet never phoned one in. But this new group — Mr. Watkins alongside the violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and the violist Lawrence Dutton — complemented their customary power, finesse and unanimity with a fresh, palpable vigor at Tully, and it was electrifying.”
"... with musicians like this there must be some hope for humanity."
"The performances were everything we have come to expect from this superb ensemble: technically resourceful, musically insightful, cohesive, full of character and always interesting."
"Few string quartets have regularly displayed such individuality among members -- an ideal stance for coloring and differentiating the complex strands of the fugues."
"The precision and grace with which the ensemble dispatched the opening of the final movement was breathtaking, and by the adrenaline-pumping coda it was difficult to sit still."
"The Emerson has staked its claim to being the one indispensable quartet in a world that is constantly creating more, excellent ensembles."
"These are high-powered performances with at times terrifying attack and explosive accenting...they are mightily impressive."
"...the Emerson played with vigor and style ...infusing the familiar music with energy and transparency."
"The Emerson String Quartet...has the easy virtuosity, precise sense of ensemble, rhythmic vigor and rich polished tone..."
"The Emerson performances represented an extraordinary fusion of experience and authority with audacity and freshness."
"The Emerson is one of the most impressive of American string quartets.
"I very much doubt whether Haydn ever heard his music sound like this; and if that is so, then I think it was a deprivation much to be regretted on his behalf."