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Mozart Quartets Fit For A King

<p>The Emerson String Quartet.</p>
J Henry Fair
courtesy of the artists

The Emerson String Quartet.

You might suspect that after more than three decades together, the men of the Emerson String Quartet — violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, who alternate their chairs, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel — might have run out of things to say, particularly when it comes to works by such staple composers as Mozart. But that couldn't be further from the truth, as their latest recording of Mozart's three "Prussian" string quartets demonstrates.

Named after the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the brilliant Emersons bring a particularly American kind of openness — and even a sense of searching — to these quintessentially Old European works, the only quartets Mozart wrote for a royal patron: Friedrich Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia, an enthusiastic amateur cellist. Despite the popular notion of Mozart as a pure vessel of otherworldly inspiration, Mozart by his own admission labored mightily over these three pieces, which became known as his "Prussian" quartets.

But far from being prissy or anemic fluff, this music lives and breathes, particularly in the hot-flowing finale of the last of the three quartets, the Allegro of the String Quartet in F Major, K. 590:

This is deep counterpoint, but instead of spinning out his lines with a unified grace, Mozart builds the voices in urgent tension. Ideas veer one way and then, abruptly, in another as he twists the main theme in improbable ways.

Yet part of the excitement here is absolutely due to the Emersons, who have been together now — with the same lineup — for an astonishing 35 years of absolutely superb music-making. The London Times once gushed, "With musicians like this there must be some hope for humanity." Hyperbole? Absolutely not.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.