Emerson Quartet: Four's a company

The Emerson Quartet has reached the grand old age of 25. Their co-founder Eugene Drucker tells Nick Kimberley why they're still together
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For two people to maintain an intimate relationship for over 20 years is difficult enough. When four people manage it, there is cause for celebration. While students at New York's Juilliard School, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer founded the Emerson Quartet in 1976. The following year, viola player Lawrence Dutton joined; and in 1979 David Finckel became the group's cellist. That line-up has remained intact ever since.

To mark the quartet's 25th anniversary, the players are undertaking a global tour that reaches London on Sunday. Over three nights, the Emersons present a mini-conspectus of quartet history, beginning with all six quartets by Béla Bartók performed, in chronological order, in one evening. That will be followed by an evening of quartets by the composer credited, if not with inventing the form, then at least with making it viable – Joseph Haydn. Then comes one of the pinnacles of quartet history, Beethoven's three "Rasumovsky" quartets.

Given that the Emersons' recordings of Bartók and Beethoven have won awards galore, it promises to be an exhilarating survey. Co-founder Eugene Drucker acknowledges that the acclaim has made it easier to stay together: "Success is a good lubricant. In any quartet's early years, there are differences of people's personalities and playing styles to be worked out, but not so that they are erased. We prefer to allow the differences to continue, as long as they work in a harmonious way."

That means spending time doing something other than being in a string quartet: "You have to learn to give each other distance," Drucker admits. "For the first few years, a quartet has to rehearse almost every day in order to be able to hone its craft, but when you get beyond that need, you can give each other the leeway to pursue other projects. I've made solo recordings, for instance, of Bach's works for unaccompanied violin, and a number of Bartók sonatas. Our cellist, David Finckel, plays about 40 recitals a year with his wife, and they have recorded large chunks of the piano and cello repertoire. That kind of activity, and the versatility and ability to project that solo playing requires, strengthen the individual contributions to the group."

While Drucker could not have foreseen that, when he founded the Emersons, he was embarking on a lifetime project, it was almost inevitable that he would become a quartet player: "My father played violin, and when he was growing up in Germany, he idolised the violinist Adolf Busch. Years later, when they were both in the United States, my father became second violin in the Busch Quartet, which was the highlight of his career. So I was aware of the greatness of the quartet repertoire long before I was ready to tackle it. The literature is an almost bottomless ocean into which you can dive for musical and spiritual sustenance."

The Busch Quartet, widely acknowledged as one of the last century's finest ensembles, is a hard act to follow, but the Emersons have one characteristic that the Busch would never have contemplated: Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer alternate as first violin. As Drucker suggests, "It's an integrated part of our functioning. At first some critics said that the quartet was better one way or the other, and that we should formalise our roles. But we feel that it works for us. Goethe characterised the string quartet as a conversation among equals, and the sense that all four players are of equal weight gained currency through the 19th century and on into the 20th. In certain repertoire, the first violin has to stand out in relief from the other voices, but sometimes it is harder, acoustically, to project the second violin part. And often when the first violin has to sing a long, beautiful line, you need rhythmic leadership from the second. We think that we each have the skills necessary for both parts, but we wouldn't recommend it for every group."

As for next week's 25th anniversary concerts, "We wanted programmes," Drucker says, "that represent a significant part of our history, but that are also important in string quartet history. With Haydn, you have a sense of constant experimentation, so rather than present a complete opus number, we offer works from different periods. And it is remarkable to hear the different approaches. In the fugue in the last movement of Opus 20, No. 5, for example, every voice is of equal importance, but if feels like a reference back to the high baroque of Handel and Bach. Whereas in the 'Joke' Quartet, we hear what we recognise as Haydn style: something more rococo, concerned with elegance and wit. And if one had to choose the most significant contribution to the literature of the string quartet, most people would agree it's Beethoven. He expands the boundaries of the form to achieve a symphonic exploration of the string quartet form, and that exploration is best embodied in the 'Rasumovsky' quartets."

Which leaves Bartók. It is not unprecedented to play all six quartets (representing some two-and-a-half hours of music) in one concert, but it is an Emerson speciality. "It can be an intensely emotional experience for the audience," Drucker suggests. "I know it is for us. The music spans 32 years of his life, and you have an even more marked evolution of style than you have with Haydn. The music of the first quartet, finished in 1909, is still rooted in Romanticism, with some influence from Beethoven. By the time of the last movement of the sixth, first performed in 1941, one senses the proximity of death, although somehow Bartók allows a glimmering of hope. When we've played the quartets in one concert and reach that ending, it carries greater significance than when we play it as part of a mixed programme. With Shostakovich, Bartók represents the pinnacle of 20th-century quartet writing."

The Emerson Quartet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242), 4 Nov (Bartók), 6 Nov (Haydn) & 8 Nov (Beethoven). 'The Haydn Project' is available on Deutsche Grammophon