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For their new album, Journeys, Emerson String Quartet performs two string sextets from the 1890's, Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky and Verklrte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Arnold Schoenberg. This is the quartet's first recording of anything by Tchaikovsky since the 1980's and its first ever recording of a piece by Schoenberg. They are joined on both of these sextets by two frequent collaborators, American violinist, Paul Neubauer and British cellist, Colin Carr. "Our new album embodies the idea of "journeys" on several levels," says Eugene Drucker. "The wide spectrum of colors, moods and compositional techniques in Tchaikovsky's passionate Souvenir de Florence could be a journey from Russia to Italy and back again. Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht depicts more of an internal journey from anguish and psychological torment to acceptance and love."
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The first movement is somewhat stormy, tumultuous in fact. The Emersons attack the opening not just with verve but with absolute rigor. The movement quickly settles down into a rapturous melody that the Emersons infuse with an even further enlightening energy. It's still quite lyrical but on a spirited scale, especially in that drawn-out second subject with its delicious counterpoint.
The slow second movement, the Adagio cantabile e con moto, is serene, the Romantic centerpiece of the work. The Emersons capture its delicately rhapsodic nature without giving in to the temptations of sentimentalizing it. They bring out all its most lovely contrasts, the strings almost literally singing their parts. It is sublime.
The final two movements, marked Allegretto moderato and Allegro con brio e vivace, increase in tempo and gusto, sounding far more rhythmically vital and "Russian" than the rest of the work. In the Emersons' hands, these sections bounce along at a zippy yet never breathless pace, the third movement sounding particularly folksy in its presentation. The finale begins with a quick dance tune that the Emersons handle in vivacious style, producing a sunny, warm-hearted result.
The final number on the disc is Verklarte Nacht ("Transfigured Night"), Op. 4, a single-movement sextet written by the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) in 1899, one of his first important works. The Emerson players perform Verklarte Nacht with great urgency and drama, charging it with notable expression through their nuance and coloring. One has little trouble following the music's interrelated themes (especially with the words to Dehmel's poem reproduced in the accompanying booklet) as its story unfolds in a miniature tone poem. The Emersons emphasize the warmth, stillness, passion, and pathos of the poem, their playing, as always, immaculate.
John J. Puccio
The Emerson Quartet's repertory has rested solidly in the Haydn/Beethoven/Brahms mainstream. The group has rarely recorded Tchaikovsky, and Schoenberg never until this release. Journeys contains both, in the form of two sextets, Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. To become a sextet as opposed to a quartet the Emerson Quartet is joined by violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr. The two works were written within ten years of each other, but they were at opposite extremes of the music of the period in their handling of tonality, and a conventional outlook would hold that they could hardly be more different. Yet the players seem to be suggesting that composers can't fully escape the spirit of the times in which they live, and that in fact, the two works have much in common. Both were written for the combination of two violins, two violas, and two cellos. Both, as the album title suggests, depict journeys, Tchaikovsky's physical, Schoenberg's psychological. And there is a certain emotionally overheated quality that spills through the neat classic forms of the Souvenir de Florence and links it to the more radical world of Schoenberg. The performances seem to stress the connection, with an unusually nervous Tchaikovsky that stresses the dissonances and a warmly Romantic Schoenberg. As one critic has said, `You may be able to find performances that bring out the basic traits of each work more effectively, but it's safe to say that they haven't been put together in this way.' Grady Harp, June 13