The Emerson String Quartet is one of the most acclaimed chamber groups in the world of classical music. Since their founding in 1976, the group has won nine Grammys for its recordings. Now, it has a new album out called Journeys: Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg — and it's the last recording with cellist David Finckel, one of the quartet's longtime members.
On the occasion of the new release, Finckel spoke with weekends on All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland about the bittersweet close to to a decades-long partnership.
Let's start with this new album, 'Journeys.' It starts out with Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, which is the first four tracks.
I will say, listening to the Tchaikovsky, it doesn't really sound much like Florence, does it? At least not the Florence I know — maybe the Florence when the Arno flooded. But you know, it's an amazing work because there are moments of Florentine sunshine and leisurely afternoons. But it's basically a very Russian piece. And it's extraordinary and exciting, and I'm so glad I had the chance to record this with my quartet.
What goes into a recording like this one, and how much of that practice is solitary and how much is with the group?
You know, private practice — it's almost like your underwear. You don't wear it out in public, but you make sure it's in good order before put your clothes on, what everybody sees. The working together in rehearsals in an ensemble is something that you have to plan and schedule, and people take a best guess at how many hours it's gonna take to bring it to readiness for stage or recording studio. And sometimes you over-schedule and sometimes you under-schedule. If you've under-scheduled, somewhere in the session you make up the difference.
What was the experience of recording this last album with the quartet? Was it business as usual? Bittersweet for you?
You have to sort of put on your blinders sometimes and remember that the most important thing you're doing is playing the cello, playing in the ensemble, interpreting the work. I went through this not only with the recording but with all the many "last time" appearances that I made with the quartet. I was well aware that it would be the last time I would play in Florence, or the last time I would play in Munich, or even the last time I would play in New York. But you can't let those thoughts overtake you when you have the business of making music in front of you. So yes, in some ways it was business as usual. But when I had a moment to think that, yes, it was my last Emerson session, it was quite a sensation.
Do you think that seeped into these performances, even just in a small way?
I don't think so. I certainly would not have intended anything to be different in these performances other than what we had intended for the music.
The other piece on this album is by Schoenberg, who is, of course, famously atonal, very difficult to play. How did you come up with this pairing?
The result of atonality, or modulating a lot, is that you don't feel firmly grounded — your world is floating. But you know, for all of us, sometimes our worlds float: We're in transition, we're in turmoil. And this music expresses all those things beautifully and very powerfully. The Schoenberg is not "a-romantic" — it is actually one of the most romantic pieces in the literature. There's a story that goes with it: It was inspired by a poem about two lovers walking in the moonlight, and during this walk the woman confesses to the man that she is pregnant by another man. And after a lot of turmoil, the current boyfriend says, you know, I will accept the child as my own. It's an incredibly romantic and turbulent story, and it's all reflected in the music.
Do you have a favorite moment from this CD?
Well, I have to speak selfishly about the cello solos. Both Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg reserved some of their most glorious melodies for the cello. In the Schoenberg, for example, at the moment where the man announces his forgiveness of his girlfriend, there is an incredibly beautiful, positive cello solo. Glowing, magnificent ... I always feel like just the greatest guy in the world when I'm playing that. Unless I'm playing it badly, but I try not to do that.
In the world of classical music it's quite common to swap out players, but certainly not with the Emerson Quartet — you've been the same since 1979. I'm wondering how you broke the news to your fellow performers, your friends, that you'd decided to leave. Did they have an inkling that it might happen?
I think the other guys were shocked but not surprised; the world knows as well as they do how many hats I wear. And yes, of course, they were the first to know, in a very private way, and we had quite a few long, heartfelt discussions — not so much about my leaving but about the future of the quartet and what shape it should take and what the options were. Just a couple nights ago in Montreal they played their first concert with cellist Paul Watkins. I sent them a bottle of champagne backstage, and in my home at 8 o'clock that evening, I opened a bottle of champagne. So it was a really nice moment. It was the culmination of a two-year project for me to successfully disengage from the quartet and see it continue in high style. It was a very proud and wonderful moment for all of us.
As you look back, do any highlights jump to mind of your time with the Emerson?
There are so many highlights. And a lot of them are just personal. I remember when every single one of the Emerson children was born — you know, when somebody got a call in the middle of the night or had to run away from some rehearsal or concert to be with their wives. We've walked out on stage together when we were all absolutely scared to death and had no idea what was going to happen, and somehow got through it. We've lived through various disasters in concerts together and forgiven each other for them. I mean, these are all highlights of a classical music career and we could not be more fortunate to have them.