In a presentation conceived by their management at Winderstein and IMG respectively, pianist Evgeny Kissin joins the Emerson String Quartet in a 2018 concert tour. Commencing with performances in France, Germany and Austria, and crossing the pond in April, the eagerly-anticipated collaboration continues to Chicago, Boston, and for its final performance on April 27, New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Kissin returns newly married, after a sabbatical from his yearly U.S. performances. With this special chamber music venture that pairs Carnegie Hall’s darling with a formal string ensemble for the first time, Kissin continues to expand his creative spectrum, broadening his offerings even further, past Jewish poetry recitals and his latest foray into writing and composing.
While steeped in the tradition of the art passed down by the great mid-century Guarneri and Juilliard String Quartets and shaped by iconic mentors such as violinists Oscar Shumsky and the late Robert Mann – founding member of the Juilliard quartet, who just passed away this January – the Emerson String Quartet has managed to further the chamber music genre like few others in the 21st century.
With a Deutsche Grammophon recording contract covering masterpieces in the new digital format, the Emerson Quartet was launched into international stardom, recognized with numerous awards, including nine Grammys. After its re-formation five years ago, with Welsh-born cellist Paul Watkins coming in for David Finckel – the quartet’s longstanding charismatic (and photogenic) cellist since 1979 – the Emerson Quartet continues to hold its uniquely eminent position.
Now in its 41st season, the Quartet – Philip Setzer (founding violinist), Eugene Drucker (founding violinist), Paul Watson (cello), and Lawrence Dutton (violist) – and Kissin promise to make for an ideal partnership in this sustained journey of discovery.
Kissin has performed chamber music all his life, collaborating with renowned soloists as in his 2015/2016 Carnegie Hall Perspective Series premiere trio appearance with cellist Mischa Maisky and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Even though the pianist personally prefers to “play more” during his own solo recitals, as he told me once before, he regularly shares the stage with others, showing intimate familiarity with an array of diverse chamber music repertoire.
Just last summer he performed both piano quartets on the upcoming program, the famously challenging Mozart Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478, and Fauré’s lyrical Piano Quartet No. 1 ,at the Verbier Festival with violinists Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Roman Simovic, violist Antoine Tamestit, and cellist Mischa Maisky. This performance also contained the powerful Dvořàk Piano Quintet No. 2, planned for the second half of the upcoming program, which he recalls performing at Verbier’s 2004 festival with violinists Vadim Repin and Laurent Korcia, violist Yuri Bashmet, and cellist Alexander Kniazev. In February, he will also take the entire program with the Kopelman String Quartet for another spin to Madrid.
For its part, the New York-based Emerson String Quartet has had its fair share of collaborations with famed soloists. Asked about some of their choice pianists, founding violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer point to frequent affiliations with Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman, both friends and neighbors on the Upper West Side. During its long career, the Emerson has featured partnerships with numerous other pianists as well, as varied as as Menahem Pressler and Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Rehearsals for the ensemble’s multi-faceted programs this season begin after a long winter break, when the four men resolutely enter IMG’s midtown mansion. While the group sets up music stands and exchanges thoughts on the sequence of scores they’ve come together to work on, one cannot help but notice the strong rapport among the varied personalities. Their interaction is conversational, but focused. As they pick up their instruments, their musical energy projects strongly, yet with a certain unfussy elasticity that makes for an appeal larger than the sum of their voices.
It is interesting to observe the exchange of first and second violin seats even during rehearsal, a process which had become a trademark of the ensemble early on. While not an unusual situation for student ensembles trying on different hats, this “egalitarian” setup within a professional setting indicates a profound advocacy of equal partnership.
This impression is evocative of a testimonial David Finckel recently shared with me: “Thank God the Emerson Quartet never set its interpretations in stone, unchangeable for any reason…and it was, and I believe is, artistic independence and individual artistic identity that keeps the group healthy, artistically and socially, and dare I say successful, for more than 40 years.” That success is evident, at the very least in their attracting collaborations with artists like Kissin.
“We had met Zhenya,” as Kissin is called in place of the more formal Evgeny, “in person, when he came to our concert in Prague two years ago,” explains Setzer, whose role in the quartet also encompasses a good deal of programming. He adds: “It seemed important for him to establish some personal rapport, and our meeting was indeed very pleasant. I had heard him perform once at Verbier, and for me he truly is one of the great musicians of all time. Performing with different pianists can bring out varied inclination in interpretation, tempi and sound production. The biggest expectation from joining forces with a pianist is the balance of how opaque the piano’s sound quality can become and how powerful, without drowning out the strings. I have a feeling our alliance might make for some revelations, that’s why it’s so exciting to have multiple performances together, hopefully translating into further collaborations in the future.”
“Of course we have heard each others’ recordings, but we have no idea yet about any specific outcome, except that we have been doing this for a long time and he is simply brilliant, so I am sure we will make each other happy,” remarks Lawrence Dutton, the quartet’s violist, who as the ensemble’s treasurer also handles its fees, retainers, and many of the travel arrangements.
While on tour, the ensemble balances time spent socially with ample accommodation for personal retreat, notably preferring their rooms to be located at some distance from each other. David Finckel explains, “in the Emerson Quartet we all loved to eat, and I think it’s still that way, having had many, many meals with Paul Watkins…We always ate together on tour whenever we could. My former colleagues in the quartet are very interesting people, and lots of fun. Dinner conversations can range from philosophical to scatological, and we had lots and lots of great times on tour…together. Yet,” he continues, “there’s a kind of mantra that musicians like to repeat: ‘If you are not practicing, someone else is,’ which emphasizes not only the competitive aspect of a music career, but also the eternal, internal affliction that we all suffer from knowing that, as good as we get, we are never as good as the music we are playing, and that there is no end to the mountain-climbing that a dedicated artist commits to upon embracing a lifetime in music. So it’s as simple as this: if I desperately need to take a nap before a concert, I don’t want to hear my colleagues practicing because I won’t sleep.”
“When we started out as a quartet,” recalls Dutton, “we used to talk things out a lot beforehand, but that changed over the years and it became less talk and more doing, listening, and trying things out. That is the exciting part,” he explains. “When we perform with a soloist for the first time, we are ready to be inspired and to try new angles. Having different performance opportunities lined up will afford us the opportunity to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, and to try something different each time.”
“About a year ago, Zhenya emailed us a handwritten manuscript of one of his own compositions for string quartet,” says Drucker, who often crafts written statements and occasionally program notes for the quartet. His novel The Savior, which integrates some of his family’s biographical data, reflects on music and the human condition through the moral predicaments of a young German violinist during the Holocaust. “About a month ago, he sent a recent recording of this work with the Borodin Quartet. I guess he was looking for input [as to whether] the composition works well for strings, which I am able to confirm. And judging by his more traditional concert programs,” Drucker adds, “one would not expect this great feeling for an interesting atonal style.”
“I am very excited for our collaboration, we have a lot of mutual respect for each other,” says Drucker, adding that the program is highly unusual for a performance with string quartet. “Usually a guest soloist would perform in one or perhaps two pieces, with us coming in as a quartet in between, unlike in this program, where Kissin will perform in each segment of the program, while Philip and I will take turns with the quartets.”
“Programming the pianist in every piece will make for a true chamber music concert, perhaps one of a kind,” exclaims Paul Watkins. He points out that “his composition actually works extremely well, and as the ensemble’s cellist I am the only one reading a bass clef!”
Watkins, at 48 several years younger than the other Emerson Quartet members, is closest in age to Kissin, who is now 46. He remembers vividly hearing Kissin for the first time when the pianist performed with a Russian group of visiting artists at his alma mater, the Yehudi Menuhin School. “Kissin must have been no older than 13 when he sat down to play a Chopin Ballade or something of that sort, and I thought to myself: ‘oh wow, so this is how it’s done.’”
An accomplished conductor and a pianist, the cellist also marvels about having become such an integral part of the quartet’s new sound vision after a very smooth transition. “No one will ever change that distinct integrity of all of Emerson’s individual voices, but I definitely brought a different sound quality into the total partnership,” he says. “With its long, continuous existence and success, I had big shoes to fill, replacing a great man – perhaps the best – and had to learn a lot of new repertoire,” he adds, referring to Finckel. “But after playing with them for only five minutes I knew I wanted to join. I was up to the challenge, and that’s only possible when you are all-in, otherwise you are in the wrong place.”
“The cello is the foundation in a string quartet and Paul has a very different musical personality than David,” Drucker explains. “I would describe our sound as being a bit dryer now. Paul has this deep bass baritone, while David had more of a sumptuous tenor voice. Apart from the sound, the change in our timing was subtle, without losing its edge. I think while David had a more driven personality and favored a streamlined rhythmic approach to most of the music we played, now there is more an expansive sound, with more time taken between phrases and sections, and perhaps a slightly more ‘romantic’ inclination.” Adds Dutton, “The sound of the quartet indeed hinges on its cello, to a certain degree it creates a cushion for the other strings. Other than David’s more penetrating voice, Paul’s is a more rounded timbre going back to the Budapest or the Guarneri sound.” “Yes,” agrees Setzer, “it gives the violins a different base to sit on.”
If musical life on stage and interaction among performers can reveal some truth about reality, it certainly matters who partners up with you out there. At the 2011 Verbier Festival, violinist Vadim Repin, having performed with Kissin since childhood, said to me, “So many things can go wrong during a chamber music performance, but Kissin always manages to keep you safe. No matter what happens he will come to your rescue, and I will gladly put my life in his hands.”
In conclusion, here is Finckel’s personal outlook: “Every house needs a foundation, which determines not only its size but its stability. Every piece of music has its bass line, chord roots, harmonic underpinning, and it’s the cellist’s responsibility in a quartet to ensure that those building upon the foundation have proper support. I’ve read that lack of physical support is the most innate fear that we possess. I think that’s true in chamber music as well.”