The musical proceedings opened with an informative pre-concert talk where Stephen Johnson engaged Emerson violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer in revealing conversations about their evolving attitude to the cycle and about Bartok's creative development in general. Drucker admitted a particularly strong attachment to East European folk music, whereas Bartok's own ethnic explorations were vividly traced in Barrie Gavin's absorbing BBC documentary "The Miraculous Circumstance". It was an appetising hors d'oeuvre, but no match for the astonishing main meal.
Bartok's quartets are the greatest since Beethoven's and the Emerson Quartet are surely the works' finest present-day interpreters - many times finer, in fact, than they were back in the late 1980s, when they made their award-winning recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. Nowadays, their approach is freer, more gutsy and less squeaky-clean. They tear into the First Quartet's finale with an animal vigour that transforms what commonly emerges as something of a damp squib, certainly in comparison with the later works. Their traversal of the Second Quartet is riveting, with a hushed account of the second movement's scurrying coda and a closing Lento that claims its rightful measure of mystery.
Beyond the first interval, came the economically crafted Third Quartet, a musical minefield condensed into a mere quarter of an hour. Here the Emersons opted for springy rhythms and light textures, but their handling of the Fourth Quartet married savage attack (severed bow hairs whipped the music-stands) with heartfelt phrasing. There was humour, too, especially towards the end of the pizzicato fourth movement, where the players' sense of fun raised a quiet wave of giggles from the audience. Both here and in the similarly "arch-structured" Fifth Quartet, the Emersons suggested a rare parallel with Haydn, certainly in terms of humour, profundity and playful invention. The second movement's hymn-like chord progressions were positively serene, whereas the "alla bulgarese" Scherzo had the spontaneous ease of a jazz interlude. And lastly there was the Sixth Quartet, a sad, accepting, occasionally jocular essay (though this time the jokes were tinged with bitter irony) that left us with a spirit of hope - or at least with a meaningful question. Again, the Emersons framed Bartok's assertive rhythms within a warm-hearted context, and the work's closing movement was surpassingly beautiful.