After the Emersons, whither the string quartet?

After the Emersons, whither the string quartet?


norman lebrecht

August 27, 2021

Can anyone remember a time without a dominant string quartet?

Ever since the Joachims commanded the scene in the 1880s, one quartet has stood out in central Europe and another in America.

There were plenty of others besides, some of them just as good, but one quartet always seemed to define an era.

In the present century, the Emerson Quartet has done so in America, while the Artemis were among a small pack of frontrunners in Europe. Both have now pulled the plug. What happens next?

Carnegie Hall, the Philharmonie in Berlin and London’s Wigmore Hall will decide on a centrepiece string quartet around which to build their chamber music season.

The European field is rich at the moment – the Ebènes in France, the Casals in Spain, the Czech Talichs, the Tetzlaffs in Germany and the Belceas in Britain, to name but a few.

But what of the US scene? The Calder (pic) and the Dover spring to mind, but are they ready to be brand leaders?



  • Bill Blake says:

    The Borromeo and Brentano Quartets come to mind.

  • X.Y. says:

    For the US do not forget the JACK-quartet, adventurous programming, highest quality playing, really serving music.

    • marcus says:

      Another vote for JACK-saw them at the Wigmore a while back playing an all Xenakis programme-Absolutely top draw playing.

  • Scott says:

    Listen to the Dover String Quartet.

  • Jon says:

    Are the Takacs still going? Surely they are among the greats of all time not just this century.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    There will be others when the time is more appropriate. ‘Culture’ has always been a small minority venture.

  • olivia nordstadt says:

    i thought that the Auryn Quartet is planning to retire even before the Emersons. For a dominant German quartet I believe that the Leipzig Quartet (despite some rather strange happenings a couple of years ago) would be the prime candidate. For dominant Czech quartet, I believe that the Prazak and Panocha quartets are with consideration along with the excellent Talich group.

  • Stas says:

    Times have changed and thank goodness there’s more quartets than ever before and more musical choices to enjoy.

  • Anon says:

    European critics are in touch with what audiences enjoy.
    The most prominent American critics provide generous coverage to fringe new music groups which occupy small niches and very little attention to the most wonderful quartets.

  • JB says:

    This is a business consideration and not an artistic one. There are many great string quartets around, but you need to have a “household name” to fill the seats in venues like Carnegie Hall.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Europe: Quartetto di Cremona.

    USA: Pacifica Quartet, if any…

  • David K. Nelson says:

    An interesting way of looking at and setting up the situation, which doesn’t look great at the moment, does it? In years past one would expect the Emersons to (as with the Juilliard, Pro Arte, or Fine Arts quartets) grow older and older and replace players as needed until it’s like the proverbial 100 year old axe which has gone through three heads and five handles, nothing original left, but is still called a 100 year old axe .

    But cannot a case be made that the era of the single dominating string quartet, which indeed was a long era, was itself the product of string quartet music being so esoteric and such a narrow and specialized taste that there just wasn’t room for as many “top” quartets, as there is or was for “top” concert violinists or “top” symphony orchestras or “top” opera houses? That there was only a “need” for one great string quartet?

    Put another way, what if the current situation is actually a recognition that the Joachims and Flonzaleys and Capets and Budapests finally “won” their battle and that the string quartet is now not so esoteric or specialized an interest?

  • Mike says:

    I’m sorry to say but since Amadeus and Guarneri stopped performing there hasn’t been a “centerpiece” quartet.
    Emerson made some lovely recordings but never had the special quality of Budapest, Amadeus or Guarneri.
    From the young groups I feel like Dover is the closest in terms of that special string quartet sound that is so incredibly moving. It will take them some time but they’re great.
    Congrats to Emerson for an impressive career. They’re all fantastic musicians and human beings and now they will have more time for family life and teaching

  • Monsoon says:

    Really, Norman?

    Kronos Quartet, Pro Arte Quartet, Pacifica Quartet, Takacs Quartet (it is based in Colorado), and then there’s a relatively new start up called the Juilliard String Quartet.

  • Chilynne says:

    Pacifica! Thrilling performances, which I greatly miss hearing live.

  • NYMike says:

    The Escher Qt., arguably the best of them all.
    Since they’ve been BBC artists and have appeared @ Wigmore numerous times, I’m aghast that NL’s myopia seems to miss them. What other Qt. do you know of that has the ability to play all six Bartok Qts. in two nights plus his piano quintet on the third night as they did last month? I liken their flawless intonation, blend and robust sound to that of the Philly Orch. and Royal Concertgebouw’s.

  • David Rowe says:

    Great topic, very near & dear to my (professional) heart, Norman! I suggest the framing is a bit misleading – from my perspective the lack of an undisputed heavyweight quartet has little to do with the groups, and everything with the environment. Whether Budapest, Italiano, Amadeus, Guarneri, Alban Berg, Juilliard, or Emerson, the gateway through which they all passed to reach iconic status was a long-term major label recording relationship (and concurrent marketing support). Needless to say, that path has been closed for many years, and no alternative has emerged allowing any of the dozens of highly deserving groups the opportunity to forge the last (and toughest) part of the journey. Even the Artemis never enjoyed the profile of Amadeus or Alban Berg. There are indeed as many excellent ensembles as ever (perhaps more). But it is almost impossible to imagine how any one of them will establish the sort of profile and drawing power you are asking about. And that may be an excellent outcome, with many superb groups sharing the performing fee pie more equitably than in the past!

  • Edgar Self says:

    Budabest, Pro Arte, Lener, London, Busch, Vienna Konzerthaus, Borodin, Paganini, Guarneri, Pacifica, Italiano.

  • CarlD says:

    I’m going to recommend a lesser known group — the Shanghai Quartet. I first discovered them in a wonderful, small-venue chamber concert in L.A., and though to date they have been rather lightly recorded, what they do is quite impressive.

  • Micaelo Cassetti says:

    I’m guessing Vienna and Berlin Phils both still have “in-house” 4-tets…Brandis?

  • Petros Linardos says:

    The comments amply show that there is presenty no shortage of excellent quartets. Moreover, one can hear sublime playing from ad hoc quartets in places like Marlboro.

    Who would benefit from applying the star system in the string quartet sphere? Not the audiences, I think.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    Austin-based Miró Quartet released a superb Beethoven cycle last year and I know composers who have worked with them and say that they are at the very highest level.

  • George says:

    The Juilliard Quartet is still doing fine work, especially with its newest first violinist.

    Brooklyn Rider and the Attacca Quartet may not be of Emerson stature but they do interesting programming.

  • Michael says:

    Last week the Dover played the Schoenberg Quartet in D Minor and the Shoshtakovich Piano Quintet nearly back to back at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. I have been following them for years and even before the recent news about the Emerson, I thought the Dover was the premier quartet in the United States.

  • Bill says:

    Pacifica Quartet in US

  • Pedro says:

    The Hagen Quartet is the best for me as the Italiano was the best in its time.

  • Publicus says:

    The Brentano is, by far, the best American quartet and one of the finest in the world. The Belcea, Doric, Ebène and others are truly wonderful, not to mention the Hagen. We are in the golden age of quartet playing – you just aren’t paying attention. Only the truly lazy pine for groups like the Emerson (who haven’t play well for many years).

  • Does there have to be one that occludes the others?

  • Piston1 says:

    The St. Lawrence Quartet should now take its rightful place in the pantheon on this side of the pond. Quartets don’t get any better than this.

  • Bratsche Brat says:

    Ebène is head and shoulders above the competition.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Where would Slipped Disc be without melodrama ?
    This artform is alive and kicking with countless great groups around the world

  • Peter says:

    The Miro Quartet should definitely be considered one of the best of the Americans.

  • FrankinUSA says:

    Another major factor for any future SQ(and actually all classical artists aspiring to make recordings) is the state of the classical music recording industry ie the “labels.” The majors(UMG/Decca,DG etc,Warner-which EMI,Sony Classical) literally have no strategy as in the “old days” where any artist(soloists,groups, orchestras etc) would be supported by a label sometimes for decades and you would see plans for complete sets(entire Beethoven quartets etc) and see it to fruition. There are also some very fine independent labels. Some artists(soloists,orchestras) have started their own labels. There is absolute no certainty of anything in terms of long range projects.

  • sidelius says:

    Perhaps what are perceived as “dominant” quartets is as much a matter of which ones enjoy the massive promotional apparatus of a large label as it is any clear or emphatic superiority. There have been in every recent decade a fair number of superb groups that never got as noticed because they were on small labels. So I think the dominance is more apparent than real. It’s hard to compete with Deut sche Grammaphon.

  • Beinisch says:

    A centrepiece quartet is no doubt The Jeruaslem String Quartet.
    No other quartet is playing Shostakovich like them.

  • Jonathan says:

    What about the Danish String Quartet? They are wonderful.

  • PL says:

    In North America, the Emerson, Takács, and Juilliard have held the senior quartet mantle. The latter two going through some interesting and exciting member changes. The Takacs brought in Harumi Rhodes and most recently Richard O’Neill who just won a solo Grammy, while the Juilliard appointed Areta Zhulla two seasons ago as first violin and Astrid Schween as cello just before that. So I’d think both of those two are well positioned to lead the way. Then there are the St. Lawrence, Brentano, Pacifica, and Miro turning out great music in addition to the other outstanding crop of the aforementioned Dovers, Calder, JACK, Jupiter, Jasper, Attacca, and now the Viano coming on the scene. There are many more worth mentioning as well. One would think there’s not too much to worry about, eh?

  • Plush says:

    In America, the Takács String Quartet and the Juilliard SQ are at the very top. Youth type quartets are nowhere near their artistry.
    In Europe the Danish String Quartet are exemplars of true artistry and moving ensemble playing.

  • Larry W says:

    The Dover Quartet is Guarneri 2.0.

  • JJ Big says:

    Fitzwilliam Quartet is still going and true reference after 50 years!

  • Karen Clarke says:

    There are so many fine string quartets out there, good grief!

  • G says:

    Remarkable but unsurprising that nobody who reads this godforsaken sensationalist blog has mentioned the greatest and most unique quartet in the world, the Chiaroscuro quartet. But then, as Norman refers to “brand leaders” above, perhaps this is because Chiaroscuro are not a “brand” like Ebene and Emerson etc, but are true, absolute, no-bullshit, old fashioned artists (which isn’t to say that Ebene and Emerson aren’t very good from time to time too!)

  • Die Frau ohne BS says:

    The Dover and “the” Calder in the same sentence? Hilarious.

  • Martinu says:

    Jerusalem Quartet, still among the best.

  • Dennis Dio Parker says:

    The St. Lawrence String Quartet.
    I believe that it warrants consideration.

  • Sidelius says:

    Does no one still have any love for the La Salle, Medici, Tokyo, Cleveland, Hungarian, Orford, Colorado, or Melos quartets, just to put a few more first-raters out there? There was a quartet out of USC, oddly called the Los Angeles quartet. After getting raves for their complete set of all 7,409 string quartets by Haydn, they called it quits. No one can figure out why…