Infinite Voyage Emersons Alpha 1000

Infinite Voyage
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Melancholie, Op 13 (1917-1919)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
String Quartet, Op 3 (1910)
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Chanson perpétuelle, Op 37 (1898)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
String Quartet No 2 in F-sharp minor, Op 10 (1907-1908)
Emerson String Quartet, Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Bertrand Chamayou (piano, Chausson)
rec. 2022, Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, New York, USA (Berg), Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, The Netherlands (Hindemith, Chausson, Schoenberg)
Alpha Classics 1000 [73]

Eugene Drucker, violinist with the Emerson String Quartet, notes in the CD booklet that this is the quartet’s final album after a 47-year career. If so, then it is a sad day for music lovers who have marvelled at the continued excellence of this stellar ensemble. The quartet’s membership has largely remained unchanged since they formed in 1976 in New York City. Violist Guillermo Figueroa, Jr. left in 1977, and cellist Eric Wilson in 1979. In 2013, the renowned British cellist Paul Watkins replaced cellist David Finckel after his 34-year run.

The ensemble’s repertoire has been broad, as reflected in their discography, from works of Haydn and Mozart to Bartók and Shostakovich, some of which are complete cycles. Here they present works that they have not previously recorded, to my knowledge. They are joined by soprano Barbara Hannigan, no stranger to music lovers, especially in contemporary music. She has palpable rapport with the Emersons: they have performed at least most of these works together over the years. The distinguished pianist Bertrand Chamayou joins them for Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle. The title of the disc, Infinite Voyage, is not explained, but could certainly refer to Drucker’s comment that their musical journey has been inspiring for all of them. Hannigan indicates as much in her remarks also included in the booklet.

An air of sorrow prevails over the selections on this programme, none more so than in Hindemith’s early Melancholie. He composed it in memory of his friend Karl Köhler, who died on the Western Front in 1918, according to Nicolas Derny’s lucid CD notes. The piece uses four poems from a collection of Christian Morgenstern, also entitled Melancholie, that deals with the devastation of World War I. The third song, Dunkler Tropfe, with its funeral march rhythm, is particularly moving. I doubt any listener would recognize the music as Hindemith’s. They sound nothing like the neoclassical composer most familiar to fans of his early period. This even earlier composition is redolent of late Romanticism, and has more in common with early Schoenberg. Melancholie has been recorded only a few times, but it is thanks to Hannigan that it is included here. She indicates in her note that she had been carrying around the score for years, just waiting for the right time to record it. With the Emersons she found it, when she brought it to their attention. The result is compelling. Her range of expression and dynamics suits the poetry well, and her diction is impeccable. The balance between voice and ensemble appears ideal. For me, this work alone is worth the price of the disc.

Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, on the other hand, has received many recordings. It seems to be a favourite among singers of the standard French vocal repertoire. One might question its inclusion here among the Germanic pieces of the twentieth century, but it clearly fits in with the theme of death. Hannigan’s account compares well with those of such French singers as Véronique Gens (on Alpha) and Sandrine Piau (on Saphir). Pianist Bertrand Chamayou and the Emersons, fully in step with Hannigan, capture the essence of this music.

The two string quartets are staples of the Second Viennese School. Surprisingly, the Emerson Quartet never recorded them before. I have sometimes preferred Berg’s music over Schoenberg’s, but here it is the other way around. Both are early works in the careers of their composers. I have always found the Berg Quartet intractable. (It is the only piece on the disc not involving the soprano.) The definitive account up to now, I think, has been that of the eponymous Alban Berg Quartett on EMI/Warner. The Emerson Quartet’s performance seems every bit its equal. It is played with even greater intensity and presence, though it has not really changed my opinion of the work.

Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet has the unusual distinction of a soprano soloist in its last two movements. Nicolas Derny recounts the story about the young artist Richard Gerstl who painted portraits of the Schoenberg family and then had an affair with the composer’s wife; that may have influenced the work’s final two movements. Schoenberg set them to poems of Stefan George, a sorrowful Litany and Transcendence which looks forward to a new world. The quartet has a rather standard structure, unlike Schoenberg’s First Quartet. While chromatic, it is only partially atonal, and concludes positively on an F-sharp major chord. The scherzo second movement contains a distorted version of the song O du lieber Augustin that adds a bit of humour. The third movement begins with a beautiful, yearning theme that regrettably never returns exactly in the same way. The movement ends, as Hannigan notes, with “a fin-de-siècle primal scream”. Hannigan inhabits the poetry; her voice soars powerfully there and more coolly in the finale. For some, the classic LaSalle Quartet recording with Margaret Price (on Deutsche Grammophon) has led the field, but the Emerson Quartet and Hannigan surpass the earlier account both as a performance and as a digital recording.

I cannot think of a more fitting way to wish the Emerson String Quartet farewell, if indeed this is to be their last new recording. Alpha have done their part, too, with outstanding sound and an informative booklet filled with colour photos of the artists.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: David McDade (October 2023)

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