A pure but not simple approach from a quartet making its label debut

Schumann Emerson

Emerson Quartet: Schumann

The Strad Issue: January 2021

Description: A pure but not simple approach from a quartet making its label debut

Musicians: Emerson Quartet

Works: Schumann: String Quartets nos 1–3

Catalogue number: PENTATONE PTC5186869

Schumann’s three string quartets are like no other. Without the piano as an expressive-textural focal point there is a strange sense of ‘something missing’ on occasion, they are not traditionally idiomatic in their scoring or part-writing, and overall they lack the striking memorability of, say, the Piano Quintet or op.88 Fantasiestücke for piano trio. And yet there is a late-Fauré-like purity about these three masterworks that is uniquely special – there is not one superfluous note along the way, nor the slightest hint of self-conscious display (although they are by no means easy to play).

The Emerson Quartet, on its debut recording for Pentatone, benefits from detailed yet gently cushioned sound, ideal for Schumann’s autumnal inspiration. Compared to the startling, revisionist readings of nos.1 & 3 from the Zehetmair Quartet (ECM), the Emerson is much closer to the Romantic interpretative mainstream of, say, the Italian Quartet (Philips/Decca). Indeed, the predominance of cantabile-style, medium-paced vibrato and portamentoed espressivo intensity sound remarkably like early-1960s vintage Amadeus Quartet. Most importantly, the Emerson plays these elusive pieces with an infectious warmth, gentle, unhurried poise and captivating insight that feel wholly at one with the music’s unflashy inspiration. When even the blatantly pianistic syncopations of the Third Quartet’s opening movement emerge sounding completely natural, one is clearly in the safest of hands.