Festival Music

Emerson String Quartet

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Michael Tumelty

five stars

NO pretence, no showmanship and definitely no playing to the gallery. I could name string quartets that do all of these things; and unlike some listeners I don’t resent it: I’ve never objected to a bit of fun in music-making. But yesterday’s ultra-classy set of Queen’s Hall performances by the American Emerson String Quartet, with its “new-ish” cellist, the Welsh musician of some two years membership in the group, Paul Watkins, and a man well-known in these parts, was in a league apart.

The sheer quality of ensemble playing from the Emersons, with Watkins seamlessly integrated into the group, while retaining his characterful playing style and profile, was almost miraculous to hear. They have this way of getting right under the skin of a piece without imposing themselves on it: there was never a doubt that what we heard yesterday was Schubert, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, as opposed to the composers’ music filtered through the performers’ imaginations. It’s almost as though the group liberates the truth of the music from the score. Never have I heard such beautiful frailty in Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. And that one, moreover, was a performance that called out for a broader sweep of outings for Schubert’s under-exposed canon of quartets.

Haydn’s D major Quartet from the opus 76 set required a boat load of adjectives to capture the wit, grace and sheer humanity the Emersons released from the pages of this characterful music, while adjectives alone could come nowhere near accounting for the stupendously-honest and heart-stirring account of Tchaikovsky’s Third String Quartet from this great group in a memorable concert.