Emerson String Quartet: exiting at the top

January 23, 2023 at 11:26 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Emerson String Quartet performing on Sunday at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

One of the more painful experiences for sports fans can be watching great athletes on the downsides of illustrious careers. A similar phenomenon sometimes holds true for musicians who stay too long.

Then there are those who’ve got their timing right and somehow manage to go out in their prime. Count the Emerson String Quartet among the latter.

The esteemed ensemble, founded in 1976, will call it a day at the end of the current season. On Sunday afternoon, their farewell tour made its way to Jordan Hall, courtesy of the Celebrity Series.

First things first: these guys aren’t taking the easy way out. The program – quartets by Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Beethoven, plus George Walker’s short, touching Lyric for Strings – was, on the one hand, a highlight reel of the Emerson’s greatest hits (the Bartók and Beethoven, in fact, figured on their very first concert). On the other, it was a demanding sequence of works that would challenge the technique, intellect, and stamina of a group half (or more) their age.

Which leads to the second thing: the ensemble – founding violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins – still owns this fare.

Perhaps no other composer is so closely associated with the Emersons as Bartók. Their recording of his complete quartets won the troupe their first pair of Grammys in 1989 and remains a benchmark. So it should come as no surprise that Sunday’s performance of that composer’s String Quartet No. 2 felt so firmly lived in.

In the Moderato, velvety lyricism and linear shapeliness were married to a masterful command of musical character. Meantime, the second movement’s whiplash dialogues emerged with a terrific degree of energy and flexibility. And the devastating finale, with its mix of tonal chilliness and hesitant warmth, offered moments of terrific, shattering intensity. The last pizzicato gesture, for example, intruded onto the proceedings with violent abruptness.

If the reading sometimes felt a touch nihilistic – the Allegro’s few playful spots lacked a degree of puckishness – its embrace of the music’s fundamental songfulness and bold contrasts of tone and texture loomed large.

Walker’s Lyric, which came afterwards, provided a welcome divergence. A memorial to the composer’s grandmother, its noble, slightly bluesy turns of phrase channeled a folksy aesthetic like Bartók’s, though with a softer edge.

The Emerson’s subsequent take on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12 combined aspects of both earlier readings. Written in 1968, this is a tough piece: long, complex, expressively despondent.

Yet Sunday’s performance reveled in the first movement’s melodic riches. They’re certainly present, if sometimes ambiguous (the second theme occasionally evokes the specter of dancing skeletons).

Regardless, the group ably illuminated the music’s strange blend of mystery and familiarity; particularly striking were the dusky, burnished dialogues between Dutton and Watkins. The cellist impressed, also, in the finale, especially with his intense responses to the other players’ opening trill figures and during the soaring, central Adagio.

That this sprawling movement fully held the attention of yesterday’s sold-out house says something of the Emerson’s interpretive command of this profoundly challenging fare. Structurally, the music’s seams never showed. Textures were lucid. The energy level didn’t flag.

Above all, transitions unfolded with bracing attention to detail. Among other things, this meant that the final shift into the long-awaited D-flat-major coda arrived with impellent naturalness and coherence.

There was more of the latter to be found in the outer movements of Beethoven’s E-minor Razumovsky Quartet (op. 59, no. 2). Bold attacks and a big dynamic range marked the first, whose recurring silences were also electrically charged. The finale’s snaking second subject emerged with beguiling clarity while the music’s combination of playfulness and rhythmic tautness danced agreeably.

While the Molto adagio was fervent and shapely, it also suffered from moments of spotty violin intonation. So did parts of the Scherzo, though its off-balance affect was secure. By the second trio, though, things were back on track.

The Emersons rewarded the ovation that followed with an encore of Antonín Dvořák’s bittersweet “I Wander Often Past Yonder House,” from Cypresses. Then, after another bow, they walked off the stage, still kings of the field.

The Danish String Quartet plays music by Haydn, Shostakovich, and Britten at Jordan Hall 8 p.m. Friday. celebrityseries.org

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