Concert Review: Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet — Brilliant

The thought of the Kissin/Emerson collaboration was very intriguing, and I anticipated amazing music making.

Pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres.

By Susan Miron

This reviewer has been a devoted fan of the Emerson String Quartet for forty years, and has always loved pianist Evgeny Kissin. The thought of their collaboration was very intriguing, and I anticipated amazing music making. I have tried to see the Emersons whenever possible, perhaps a dozen times at Tanglewood and in Boston. The long-time ‘wunderkind’ Kissin, now 46, has dependably wowed me with his thrilling and emotionally rich playing. The pianist, who describes himself as Israeli-Russian-British, has just returned from a two year sabbatical. It is his 9th appearance and the Emerson’s 25th on Celebrity Series of Boston.

Two years ago, the managers of Kissin and of the Emerson String Quartet decided to put the five stellar musicians together for a tour. All of these players are known for their intellectual seriousness, sharp musicianship, and for compelling performances. Kissin is back after some time off and Emerson has a “new” cellist as of five years ago, so there was tremendous anticipation and curiosity before their Boston concert on Sunday. I had always loved Emerson’s previous cellist, the splendid David Finckel, and had to adjust a bit to the new sound of the distinguished Welsh cellist, Paul Watkins.

“The cello is the foundation in a string quartet and Paul has a very different musical personality than David,” explained Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker in an article for Get Classical, “I would describe our sound as being a bit deeper now. Paul has this deep bass baritone, while David had more of a sumptuous tenor voice. Apart from the sound, the change in our timing was subtle, without losing its edge. I think that while David favored a more streamlined rhythmic approach to most of the music we played, now there is more of an expansive sound, with more time taken between phrases and sections, and perhaps a slightly more ‘romantic’ inclination.” Emerson violist Lawrence Dutton added: “The sound of the quartet indeed hinges on its cello, to a certain degree it creates a cushion for the other strings. Other than David’s more penetrating voice, Paul’s is a more rounded timbre going back to the Budapest or the Guarneri sound.” “Yes,” agreed Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, “it gives the violins a different base to sit on.”

Before their nine-concert tour of Europe and the U.S., the five musicians arranged a two-year courtship; during that time they attended each other’s concerts and held extensive discussions about music. In an interview, Watkins talked about how excited he was about playing with Kissin:

“From the first notes we played with him, we were just really struck with the extraordinary command of the instrument that he has but also this amazingly deep ringing sound that he brings out of the piano in whatever he plays. But he’s also a master in adapting his style, and perhaps that was something of a surprise to us. It’s been remarkable to witness how he has melded his playing with ours.”

They are performing three bedrock chamber works: Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478; Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1, and Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2: “It’s a big program,” Watkins said. “I suppose the Fauré would be the piece which is perhaps least associated with someone like Kissin, but they are all really substantial piano parts, and I think they highlight different qualities in Kissin’s, well, genius really.”

Watkins has been particularly impressed with the attention that the pianist pays to the bass line — where the cellist typically resides — rather than on the flashier action in the right hand. In Mozart’s Piano Quartet, the cello often doubles the pianist’s left hand, and Watkins said teaming with Kissin in that work has made his playing richer and darker.

“I think we’ve all felt that to a certain extent,” Watkins explained “He’s a big player. He has an enormous sound. We’ve not been noted for our small and delicate sound over the years as a quartet, but even for us, he has brought out a kind of vibrancy, I think, in our playing, which has surprised even us. And that’s one of the most interesting things about collaboration.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about acoustics recently, and this concert presented a real conundrum: was it my hearing or was my seat in Orchestra Row J on the right just not a good place for listening? Moving over to the middle section helped a bit, but I was still puzzled that — after many concerts together on this tour — the balance was so lopsided. Had the musicians had a sound check before the concert? Jordan Hall seems to be a better arena for chamber music but, of course, Kissin could fill any venue, including Fenway Park.

The opening piece was Mozart’s popular and dramatic Quartet for Piano and Strings, K. 478 (1785). Emerson’s superb Drucker and Setzer, the two founding members of the quartet, have always alternated playing first violin. In the Mozart, Setzer was the violinist (with violist Dutton and cellist Watkins). Mozart composed two works for piano quartet in 1785-86. Oddly, Beethoven, then 15, composed, at the same time, three piano quartets as well. What I first noticed was the exquisite yet powerful piano sound, which often obscured the elegant playing of the string trio. By the third movement, I felt that the strings were playing with mutes on, the imbalance of sound was so noticeable (at least from where I was sitting). Kissin played the piano part “straight,” resisting the rubatos I was accustomed to hearing in this piece. The audience loved the performance, as well as the two pieces that followed, so clearly I was in the fussy minority who felt the piano was … um … overwhelming.

The Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 by Gabriel Fauré (1879, revised 1883), one of the lushest gems in the French chamber music repertoire, is a composition adored by many music-lovers. At the time of its composition, Fauré was best known for his marvelous songs. The quartet is suffused with alluring melodies, harmonic sophistication, instrumental color, and a truly virtuosic piano part. I had never heard Kissin play French music before this and, unsurprisingly, he played impressively, with elegance and élan. Drucker was the first violin for this piece. (The Emerson violinists and violist have, for years, played standing up. In this concert, all four strings sat). The sound balance was a bit better.

After a festive intermission, during which cupcakes were available to the audience, all five musicians collaborated on Antonin Dvorák’s much loved Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Major, Op. 81. Having two violins (Setzer played first violin) made a big difference in terms of balance. This ebullient work, beloved by audiences and performers, made for the afternoon’s most successful performance. Kissin played as if he were a soloist with a Wagnerian-size orchestra, but the extra violin in the mix helped the balance. They gave a stirring account of this piece of many moods. The composition opens with a lovely tranquil cello solo and then, almost immediately, heads into the exuberance that will characterize much of the rest of the piece. (There is a superb recording of the Emerson String Quartet playing this composition on YouTube with pianist Menahem Pressler.) The Quintet sounds as Czech as Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 sounds French. It was a lovely performance, and it brought the listeners in the hall to their feet, cheering. The unexpected encore (it was a long program) was the ebullient Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. A brilliant idea, played brilliantly.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.


  1. Roman Markowicz on April 28, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    Alas, Ms. Miron: it was NOT your seat that created the impression of imbalance between Mr. Kissin and the members of the Emerson Quartet. Reading your review complements my own impressions from attending the program at Carnegie Hall last night.

    I was fortunate to be seated, as a music reviewer, at the place where I usually review from, thus being assured that the acoustic properties of the hall and the sound of instruments will be pretty much similar to what I have previously heard in a similar instrumental combinations. Yes, the piano was dominating the proceedings and, as you observed, there was no possibility for mistaking Mr. Kissin, otherwise a fantastic pianist, for Mr. Pressler, a fantastic musician. Or for that matter, mistaking Mr. Kissin for any of the pianists who play chamber music all their lives. That inexperience unfortunately shows … Well, with his talent and broad horizons we should be almost assured that the future might show us a better-balanced cooperation between Mr. Kissin and his chamber music partners.

  2. Meredith on May 2, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    I agree with Ms. Miron that there was a shocking imbalance between the piano and strings in this concert and I am surprised that no other reviewers mentioned this. As she noted, the imbalance was most noticeable in the Mozart piano quartet and it did sound as though the strings were playing with mutes on. The balance seemed slightly better in the other two pieces. I was also sitting in the front orchestra center and would think this would be the best location for hearing chamber music in such a large hall. She was not the only one who thought the piano was, as she put it, overwhelming.

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