At the beginning of March of this year London's Southbank Centre played host to the Emerson String Quartet for three wholesome evenings of Czech chamber music. A few works by Janáček and Martinů were included, reminding audiences of the ensemble's acclaimed Intimate Letters disc of 2009. However, the programmes were devoted predominantly to the music of Antonín Dvořák, heralding the impending release of Old World–New World, the group's first album of the Czech master's mature string quartets (and quintet).
The Emersons are not prone to rushing through the repertoire in developing their discography, nor are they tempted (yet) to re-record works previously covered. It has taken the ensemble nearly thirty-five years to tackle these astoundingly individual, yet underperformed contributions to the canon. The one obvious omission is Dvořák's most instantly recognisable chamber work, his “American” Quartet in F major, Op. 96, which can be traced back to a Book of the Month Club release in 1990. Not to be misleading, the album title's reference to the United States is upheld by the presence of the String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97, penned during the composer's three-year sojourn across the Atlantic.
For this work the Emersons are joined by violist Paul Neubauer, producing sumptuous results. The Larghetto, in particular, is subject to a luscious rendition, its theme and variations teeming with phrasal nuance and subtlety. An unequivocal, unified understanding of the music's profound pathos is beautifully stated. Equally adept in the pentatonic perkiness infused in so much of Dvořák's output from this time, the ensemble exude vim and vigour in the evergreen quicker movements, delivering an especially lively version of the yearning yet carefree rondo Finale. This is in stark contrast to the introspective Cypresses, a set of twelve miniatures drawn from an early song cycle and arranged by the composer for string quartet. Though no vocalist is present, the Emersons' tender playing more than adequately articulates the forlorn sentiment of Gustav Pfleger-Moravský's poetry.
Throughout the rest of this three-disc set the Emerson Quartet displays a career's worth of experience, knowledge, and passion for this unique repertoire. Slavic folk heritage resonates throughout their performance of the String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 51 – composed shortly after the first set of Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 – with the idiosyncratic second-movement Dumka given a reading of earthy intensity. The ensuing work – No. 11 in C major, Op. 61 – represents a shift in character from the rolling Czech landscape into a starkly Teutonic territory. Again, the Emersons capture the essence of the music, vividly conveying the chromatic tumult of the opening Allegro whilst still hinting at melodic ties with native Bohemia (particularly in the sweeping Finale).
Rhythmic angularity is the bedrock of so much Czech music, and the Emersons ensure that this feature is brought to the fore whenever appropriate. Never is it more apt than in the Molto vivo from the String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105, a textbook Dvořákian furiant which is rendered with awesome zeal and discipline. The equilibrium achieved between melody and countermelody is tantalising, leaving the listener somewhat hesitant as to which requires attention (an enchanting characteristic of much of the playing in this release). This quartet, along with No. 13 in G major, Op. 106, was written upon Dvořák's return from America in 1895, representing his final foray into the world of 'absolute' music before turning his attention to symphonic poems and opera. Despite its bright-eyed key signature, Op. 106 (which, confused numbering aside, was indeed written after Op. 105) is a more expansive and contemplative work, its nucleus an Adagio of searing fervency. This work serenely, yet resolutely, seems to point towards the conclusion of chapters in the composer's life and music, and the emotional concentration of the Emerson Quartet's delivery is strikingly poignant.
The recorded sound places the musicians at very close quarters, and there are times – particularly in some of the more strident passages of Opp. 51 and 61 – when one might have preferred to experience a better sense of the vibrant acoustic afforded by New York's American Academy of Arts and Letters. That said, the microphone positioning does allow for greater sense of intimacy in the slow movements, as well as in the nostalgically darker hue of the last two quartets. Whilst DG's presentation is sleek and stylish, Anthony Burton's booklet notes are disappointingly sparing. One might have hoped for insight of somewhat greater substance to match that which pervades the excellent playing heard throughout these discs.