June 2006

Grieg - String Quartet in G minor; Sibelius - Quartet in D minor; Nielsen - "At the Bier of a Young Artist"
Emerson String Quartet
Deutsche Grammophon 477 5960
Format: CD
Released: 2006

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

The coupling of the Grieg and Sibelius Quartets is as self-recommending and richly justified as the far more frequent coupling of those by Debussy and Ravel, and this new issue from DG makes an especially strong case for it. As in their recording of the Debussy and Ravel, the Emersons seem to have rejected perceived notions about the respective composers in favor of allowing the character of these particular works to arise from the music itself. Sibelius labeled his Quartet "Voces intimae," and DG has applied that heading -- in English translation, "Intimate Voices" -- to this package. Anthony Burton’s annotation, headed "Northern Voices," points out that Grieg had in mind an achievement of "breadth, flight of imagination, and above all sonority" in his Quartet, and that the Sibelius "suggests a particular concern with the medium of chamber music as opposed to orchestral music." This indeed seems to be the focus of the Emersons’ sensitive, compassionate yet powerful performances, allowing Grieg and Sibelius to take their places in the broader community of the string quartet. The Nordic character, the folk flavor, the brooding solitude are all incidental to the more universal impressions of vigor, poignancy, humor and tenderness.

The four-minute elegy by Carl Nielsen, composed for the funeral of a painter the composer had known, has become the Danish equivalent of Barber’s somewhat more expansive Adagio for Strings. Its presence here, between the splendid accounts of the Grieg and Sibelius, must raise thoughts of an eventual Emerson set of Nielsen’s four quartets. The recording itself is warm, well defined, and very well suited to the material.