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Music Review: Emerson String Quartet – Old World, New World

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Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was a string player by both education and trade. He studied violin during his early years, eventually leading to an orchestral position as a violist, a post which he held for over a decade. So given his background, it should be no surprise that string writing would be a predominate part of his prolific compositional output. And in particular, his chamber works boast fourteen string quartets and three quintets. These works span from his early compositional career up until his return to Prague in 1895, and thus display both very early and very seasoned periods of his writing.

The latest release from the Emerson String Quartet is a three disc set that captures Dvorak's later quartets, and a quintet, on Old World – New World. The title refers to his stay in America (the "new world") from 1892 to 1895, with some of these works written during that period, and others written both before and afterward back in his native "old world" homeland.

The first disc contains his No. 10 and 11 quartets, which date from 1879 and 1881, respectively. Given their late-Romantic time period, it's interesting how much they hearken back, stylistically, to much earlier in the century. It's easy to see the influence of Brahms on these works, and although they contain some very energetic and chromatic sections (especially in the opening Allegro of the No. 11 quartet), the style overall stays rather traditional. The Emerson's playing here matches that style suitably, with more "proper" high-vibrato flourishes. It's not difficult to imagine these as the high parlor performances for which they were originally intended.

There is a break in programming for the second disc. Where you might expect to find his lone popular string quartet – the "American" titled No. 12 – there are instead two different offerings, one directly from his residency in the United States. The first is his "American" titled string quintet in E flat major. All of his overtly American titled major works – including the "New World" symphony – were inspired by his interest in the folk music traditions of the United States, specifically the spirituals and popular tunes of the day. His interest in researching and educating about the ties of African-American spirituals and Native American songs as the basis for the popular music heritage of the States can be heard in these works. Melodic references and rhythmic structures can be directly traced back to those roots, and the "American" quintet is no less overt an example. Also included are the Cypresses, which are string quartet arrangements from a song cycle he wrote for an unrequited love.

The third disc contains his final two quartets, written after his return to Prague from the States. (Actually, the final No. 14 quartet was started in the States, but left unfinished until his return to Prague.) It's interesting to listen to these performances in light of the first disc. Here, we find the Emerson quartet in a much more modern style, befitting the compositional development of Dvorak's final quartet writing. The development of folk melodies becomes much more pronounced, as do the rhythmic drives. But it's the much sharper, more biting playing style on display that sets them apart. These are very rich and exciting quartets, and are given highly nuanced and impassioned performances. This disc alone is worth the price of admission, but the progressive tour they give of Dvorak's development in chamber writing style is fascinating to hear.

It's a shame that these works aren't more widely known. Although not obscure, they certainly don't receive the attention (and recordings) that you find for the string quartet works of, say, Beethoven and Bartok, or even Schubert and Shostakovich. They are wonderfully composed, and full of some truly lovely and immediate music. The performance by the Emerson quartet is top-notch, presenting a highly emotive and intuitive reading of these works. It would have been nice to complete this series with the missing No. 12 "American" quartet instead of the Cypresses, but given its ready availability by your pick of a host of ensembles, it's also understandable that it would be left off for more neglected options. Overall, this is a standout set that will hopefully bring a bit more overdue attention to a major composer's underplayed offerings.

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