Prestigious Emerson Quartet shows more surface than depth

April 14, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

I must be missing something. The Emerson String Quartet is now the premier quartet in America, perhaps the world. It records whatever it wants for the most prestigious label (Deutsche Grammophon) and plays to large, enthusiastic audiences -- as it did Sunday evening in the Shriver Hall Series.

But on records and in concert -- this is now the third time I have heard this ensemble -- I keep asking myself what the fuss is about. This is a quartet that plays extremely well -- the hair-raising scherzo of the Shostakovich No. 7 had every note in place, and the Emerson had the stamina to get through Beethoven's great opus 132 Quartet in A Minor without any lapses over its 45-minute length.

But throughout the concert I often found myself wishing that I had stayed home and was listening to my favorite quartets on record. To my ears, the Emerson sounds as if it cares more about surfaces than depths, and in so personal a genre as the string quartet that affects me the way going to a great steakhouse and having to eat gray sole would.

In Beethoven's opus 74 Quartet in E-flat I didn't hear any of the profound spirituality in the adagio that I am accustomed to. First violinist Eugene Drucker's statements of the theme did not carry any of the despondent weight the composer put into the music; it was all rather affect-less. The same thing was true of the Shostakovich. This is a short work -- only three movements and scarcely 13 minutes long -- but it is loaded with anguish. But the approach of Emerson was so lightweight that one could have been listening to Mendelssohn.

I found the concluding Beethoven A Minor Quartet much more satisfying, and part of the reason was that Philip Setzer -- a more adventurous player -- had taken over the first violinist's chair (this is the only quartet I know of in which violinists alternate positions). But even here I sometimes heard a tendency to transform one of the heavyweights of the chamber music repertory into lite musik.

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