The familiar pairing of the Grieg Quartet (1878) and the Sibelius Quartet (1909) takes me back to my old Columbia LP with the Budapest String Quartet; but even that classic rendition did not possess the girth and sinewy elan of this 2004 inscription by the Emerson Quartet. The fiery temperament of the Grieg work, written in the throes of the composer’s emotional battles with his wife Nina Hagerup, translates into raw and pungent musical energies, often reminiscent of mottos in the Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt. The chordal motif that opens the quartet becomes a recurrent emblem throughout the piece, its permutations indebted to Beethoven’s precedent. Some gorgeous interplay between cellist David Finckel and Philip Setzer in the bittersweet Romanze section. Setzer, incidentally, plays a 1719 Stradivarius instrument whose tone-color is ravishing.
The richness of the harmonic writing continues in the Intermezzo movement, the outer sections of which seem to borrow pages from Bohemia. This movement was my first introduction to the complete work, again courtesy of the Budapest Quartet CBS encore album (ML 5116). In the folksy scherzando section of the movement the Emerson becomes a village band making music for the burghers. The melancholy color of the Lento finale seems to beg for reconciliation; then a fierce, serpentine-melodied saltarello ensues, which the Emerson renders with demonic, galvanized abandon. The anguish and gnashing of teeth in this movement reveal a side of Grieg closer to Emily Dickinson than to any wonted musical equivalent of Wordsworth.
Nielsen’s brief lament in E-flat Minor (1910) was written for the funeral of painter Oluf Hartmann; in 1931, the piece served at Nielsen’s own funeral in Copenhagen. The middle section moves to D Major and then to an uneasy calm, a hint of eternity. Sibelius conceived his mature String Quartet as a Schumann-like structure in five movements with two scherzos. Like the structure of his own Third Symphony, temperaments blend into one another, so there are sometimes few emotional demarcations between or within movements. More contrapuntal than the Grieg Quartet, the Sibelius has a learned character, perhaps a more experimental feel about it. The fitful nature of the writing may reflect Sibelius’ bout with mortality in the form of throat-cancer operations. The A Major Vivace in 2/4 has a bustling, rustling undercurrent, a leftover from the D Major Symphony. The second, rather lumbering scherzo (Allegretto) is marked pesante (heavy), but the Emerson keeps a light hand on it, although winter winds whistle by, especially in the coda. The F Major Adagio is the big movement, a song which allows violinist Eugene Drucker and cellist Finckel to dialogue in modal terms. The Emerson urges the intensity again in the last movement, an Allegro filled with blizzard conditions traceable to Symphony Nos. 3 and 4. A pulsating toccata for string quartet, the music shows off the Emerson Quartet as a virtuoso ensemble thoroughly comfortable in Northern climes.
— Gary Lemco