Any history of chamber music during the past half century would be incomplete without a long chapter devoted to the nine-time Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet. The revered New York-based ensemble, which was formed at the Juilliard School in 1976 and began working with Deutsche Grammophon in 1987, will call a halt to its long and illustrious performing career in late October 2023. DG will mark this momentous occasion by issuing an expanded edition of the Quartet’s complete recordings for the label. Documenting the peerless quality and striking breadth of the Emersons’ work, the edition will be available both as a 55‑CD box set and digitally, including a special Dolby Atmos version of The Art of Fugue. Emerson String Quartet – The New Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon will be released today, 13 January 2023. Further DG catalogue projects will follow during this farewell season, including the reissue of the ESQ’s multi-award-winning Shostakovich cycle as a 5-CD set.
Originally issued in 2016 to mark the Emersons’ 40th anniversary, the complete edition now also includes two more recent albums. Chaconnes and Fantasias – Music of Britten and Purcell, was released in 2017 (on Decca Gold), while The New York Concert, recorded live with Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall and featuring works by Mozart, Fauré and Dvořák, was released by DG in 2019.
At the heart of the complete edition are the ensemble’s hugely acclaimed cycles of the string quartets of Bartók, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, winners between them of no fewer than six Grammys and two Gramophone Awards; Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets; and the Brahms Quartets and Piano Quintet, this last with Leon Fleisher. The latter is just one of the many eminent collaborators featured here, with others including Renée Fleming (Berg’s Lyric Suite and Wellesz’s Sonnets from the Portuguese); Thomas Hampson (Barber’s Dover Beach); Mstislav Rostropovich (the Schubert String Quintet); and David Shifrin (the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets).
Further highlights of this abundant and wide-ranging collection include interpretations of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue and transcriptions of fugues from The Well-tempered Clavier; the complete Webern for string quartet; and Emerson commissions from John Harbison, Edgar Meyer, Ned Rorem, Gunther Schuller and Richard Wernick. Not to mention three further Grammy-winning albums – quartets by Ives and Barber; Intimate Voices (Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen); and Intimate Letters (Janáček, Martinů).
“For close to three decades, it was a privilege to document our interpretations of such a wide spectrum of music for Deutsche Grammophon,” says founder member Eugene Drucker. “Our DG discography reaches back to key works written before the invention of the string quartet (the two discs of Bach transcriptions, now augmented by four Fantasias by Purcell and Britten’s arrangement of his Chacony), extends through most of the pillars of quartet repertoire from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and explores new works by five contemporary American composers. We proudly recall the distinguished guests with whom we had the opportunity to perform and record during those years, an illustrious list to which we can now add the superstar piano virtuoso Evgeny Kissin.”
Recent highlights of the Emerson String Quartet’s packed schedule include a recital at Vienna’s Musikverein, the completion of their Shostakovich cycle at London’s Southbank Centre, and dates in Aarhus, Cologne, Luxembourg, Hamburg and Castellón. Concerts in North America follow in December and January, with their final European recitals taking place next March and October. On 22 October 2023 they will give their last ever concert, for which they will join forces once again with former long-serving ESQ cellist David Finckel for a valedictory performance of Schubert’s String Quintet.
Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and both David Finckel and his successor Paul Watkins will thereafter focus on individual projects and their collective mentorship of younger generations of musicians through the Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook University, New York.