The Emerson String Quartet is like an old friend.
On Wednesday, it came to Union College’s Memorial Chapel to entertain a near-capacity crowd with an interesting program that paired two works rarely performed with one that is a giant in the repertoire.
This was the quartet’s 30th year appearing in the International Festival of Chamber Music.
Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton were joined by their new cellist, Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel, who left after more than 30 years. It was a seamless transition, as Watkins played with a sweet sound, smooth and well-sculpted phrases and big ears for ensemble work.
They began with Mendelssohn’s last Quartet in F minor, Op. 80 (1847). The piece was written barely months after learning of his beloved sister Fanny’s sudden death at 41 in May, and Mendelssohn himself died probably of a broken heart that November. As such, three of the movements were quick and filled with anguish yet were still beautifully melodic. The slow movement cried out its pain to find some acceptance before the dramatic finale brought it all home again.
As always, the Emerson was focused, intense, well-prepared and played with great energy and passion. What is curious about the quartet, however, is that with all of its huge success (nine Grammy Awards, Avery Fisher Prize, countless recordings and extensive international celebrity), they always take the first movement of the first piece to tune up. Pitch discrepancies are frequently obvious — as they were here. Their sound, too, is not a refined sound but a robust one that sometimes sounds unfinished.
None of that was noticeable for Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor, Op. 138 (1970). Written when he was very ill and completed at a neurological institute five years before his death, the work reflects his strange musings possibly fueled by drugs and pain. What better choice than to use a 12-tone, atonal, dark, spiky line in the viola to introduce the piece? Dissonance, scratchings, pluckings, knocks, rough bowings and occasional ironic motifs etched out the stark lines that were pure anguish. It was rather mad and squirrely, but the Emerson made sense of it with great pacing and total commitment.
The finale was Beethoven’s masterful Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 (Razumovsky 1806). After Watkins introduced his wonderfully singing melody, the quartet evolved with all of Beethoven’s genius for development. Lively motifs were passed around cleverly, solemn long lines were spun out eloquently and drama was built. The Emerson showed strong, sensitive ensemble work with especially great control of the dynamics — always a touchy thing in Beethoven.
The crowd loved it and got more Beethoven: the finale of his Quartet No. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky).