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In Conversation with the Emerson String Quartet

Category: News & Views: International Concert Season

© Jürgen Frank

Barney Zwartz speaks with Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet ahead of their Australian tour.

The string quartet is as perfect a medium for classical music as there can be, according to Eugene Drucker. That is because Western harmony is largely formed with four voices, says the joint first violinist of the eminent Emerson String Quartet, now touring Australia with Musica Viva.

In a harmonic system in which the music is in one key or progressing from one to another, it is ideal to have four instruments of similar timbre in the same family, he says. They can articulate clearly as individuals or blend in chordal passages, they are equally adept in contrapuntal passages or homophonic, and everything in between. They can produce every possible texture, of melody, accompaniment, or role reversal, where the cello might play at the top of its register and the other three are below.

“There’s a sort of perfection about the four voices of the string quartet,” Drucker says. “There’s a balance that can be easily stretched to emphasise one instrument, or to have the perfect blend of the four.”

That, of course, is just the start. As their long-time producer Max Wilcox put it, “All fine string quartets strive to blend four players of individual character to produce a well-balanced musical unit. The Emerson Quartet is extraordinary for the variety of musical impulses that flow from its four virtuoso members. This produces performances notable for great poetry, emotional intensity and masterful rhythmic control. These qualities are all essential for great performances.”

Great performances are something the Emersons know about. The quartet has been together 44 years, with only one change in members in all that time. Cellist David Finckel left in 2013, when Paul Watkins joined founding members Drucker, violinist Philip Setzer (he and Drucker divide the duties of first and second violins) and violist Lawrence Dutton. In that time they have won nine Grammies, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Gramophone recording of the year awards. They have an extensive discography, including highly celebrated cycles of the Bartok, Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets –composers who all feature in the Australian programs.

The Emersons have often been called the finest string quartet to come out of America, and they have come out of America to Australia for the first time in 19 years, though it will be their fifth tour here. Drucker particularly remembers Melbourne and Sydney zoos from previous visits, the chance to see animals not often seen in the northern hemisphere. “We have a very good feeling about our experience in Australia. Various factors have delayed our return, but I’m glad it’s finally worked for us,” he says.

Touring 7 - 21 September

After such a long collaboration, are their interpretations locked in, or do they still adjust and change? “Even if we didn’t want to change anything there would be changes because we don’t control everything we do to the nth degree,” Drucker says. “Acoustics will make a big difference, so we might make adjustments if we are playing the same piece on consecutive nights or a week after the other. We remember things that didn’t go exactly as we’d want, so we talk about that and we might change certain things.

“In our (score) parts we can see almost an archaeological record of the bowings we’ve done and also the metronome indications we are trying to follow.” Many of the parts now are photocopied, and can’t be erased, leaving a palimpsest of previous markings.

They followed Beethoven’s insanely fast metronome markings when recording the early and middle quartets in the mid-1990s, but today, Drucker says, they don’t push as fast. “Even 20 years ago we might not have played as fast as we did for the microphones, which were only a few inches away, and we felt we could get closer to the spirit of Beethoven if we followed the metronome markings as closely as possible. He didn’t make metronome markings for the later quartets, which gives us a greater sense of freedom for choosing tempos.

“But these days we take the markings into consideration, but we don’t follow them quite as closely. First of all, years had elapsed after the time he composed these pieces before the metronome was invented and before Beethoven decided to add the markings, so it’s not as if he were in the first flush of inspiration. Then there’s the factor of his increasing deafness, which meant he was divorced from acoustical reality. The pieces he was marking so extremely fast, maybe in his head it sounded right, but it’s our job as interpreters to make this music as effective as possible and as comprehensible to the audience as possible, and that will depend on the size of the hall, the acoustics, and also the physical reality of playing the instruments.”

What about rehearsing – how do they tackle any differences that arise? Disagreements never feel like a life or death issue, Drucker says, because they know they can try it one way and, if the consensus is that it didn’t work, they can try it a different way at later performances. It’s a little different when they are recording because it is, at least for the time being, their ultimate statement about a work.

"I’ll take the verb ‘conquer’ at its most metaphorical. We don’t conquer, we tackle, we try to rise to the challenges."

“It’s hard to describe the rehearsal process objectively because I’m sort of inside it when it happen, but in the interests of making the most of our time we develop a kind of shorthand,” he says. Strong differences of opinion about the fundamental character of a piece are rare.

“We play pieces in various styles from various historical periods, and of course we are always making adjustments. Someone might say ‘I think we are using too much vibrato here’ or ‘the vibrato is too romantic’ if we are playing a piece by Shostakovich, for example.” That’s not to say they play entirely without vibrato, unless they want to create a really stark, chilling atmosphere, Drucker says.

“How wide, how intensive vibrato should be, that’s certainly a subject of discussion. And articulation, for example articulating staccato (depending on the tempo). We might have different preferences technically: which part of the bow do you use, how much do you bounce the bow, or do you play more on the string?”

In Beethoven, Drucker says, the early quartets can be the most challenging because they require transparency, buoyancy, elegance. In some ways it’s easier just to “dig into music that has a broader tonal palette”. In his Opus 18 quartets, Beethoven was already experimenting with the sonic palette compared with Mozart and Haydn, but stylistically playing the Opus 18s is similar to his great predecessors. “You have to play with panache but also with finesse, with delicacy – you can’t be overbearing, you can’t bear down too much on the tone production. But when you get to the middle and especially the late quartets, you can really dig in.”

For a quartet, living cheek by jowl on tour can create problems. The Borodin Quartet always asked for rooms as far apart as possible. How do the Emersons get on? When they book their own rooms they ask not to be next to each other or right on top because, as Drucker says, if one is trying to nap and another is practising it can get on the nerves of the person trying to nap.

“Hotel clerks find this a bit strange. We explain that we get on very well, we’ve been travelling together for decades, but part of the reason we get on very well is that we know how to keep a bit of distance from each other.”

How did the Emersons choose their name, taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century? It’s because the quartet first got professional management in 1976, the bicentennial year of the United States, Drucker says. The quartet wanted to acknowledge the bicentenary in the choice of name, but also to stay away from politics. “We looked for something with cultural overtones, associated with the best of American culture, and something that sounds good with the words String Quartet after it.”

That led Drucker to become more familiar with Emerson’s philosophy. “I am open to some of his ideas, and the idea of transcendentalism, looking for a source of spiritual fulfilment that is not necessarily through organised religion, that is something that relates to the music we play,” he says. It relates to late Beethoven, for example, in the Heilige dankgesang in the Opus 132 quartet but especially in the cavatina from the Opus 130 string quartet. The Heilige dankgesang consciously refers to older religious music, while the cavatina creates an intensely spiritual atmosphere without the reference to organised religion. “You have music that is not only intensely moving but seems to lift the spirit to a higher plane. It is constantly a source of fascination to me how that could happen, but some of the greatest luminaries in our civilisation have been able to accomplish that, and at the philosophical level Ralph Waldo Emerson was able to point to it.”

After nearly five decades, is there any repertoire left to conquer? Drucker replies: “I’ll take the verb ‘conquer’ at its most metaphorical. We don’t conquer, we tackle, we try to rise to the challenges. There are at least two dozen major Haydn quartets we haven’t played yet, maybe some late romantic repertoire, we’ve never played the third or fourth Schoenberg quartets. There’s always something new to do.”

The Emerson String Quartet tour Australia from 7 - 21 Sept.

See full tour schedule and book tickets here.

Listen to our Emerson String Quartet playlist below.