Emerson String Quartet sums it up nicely in a farewell performance in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Various: Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer [violins], Lawrence Dutton [viola], Paul Watkins [cello]). San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 14.1.2023. (HS)

Emerson String Quartet © Mark Allan

Purcell (arr. Britten)Chacony in G minor
Haydn – String Quartet No.5 in G major, Op.33
Mozart – String Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421
Beethoven – String Quartet No.2 in E minor, Op.59

Celebrating its 47-year ride as one of the most-recorded, most-awarded chamber music groups, the Emerson String Quartet’s extended farewell tour delivered a valedictory recital as it reached San Francisco. With signature clarity, precision and interpretive unity, they explored safe territory in music from Purcell to Beethoven (and a brief encore by Dvořák) with craft and often-sublime subtlety.

Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker founded the quartet in 1976 when students at Juilliard. Unusual for string quartets, they often alternated as first violins. Once Lawrence Dutton replaced the original violist in 1977 and cellist David Finckel got on board in 1979, the group stayed together for 34 years. The ensemble got an early break in the 1980s when Deutsche Grammophon chose them to record the label’s first new CDs of string quartet literature.

Among highlights of their 30-plus recordings are magnificent complete sets of Bartók, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich quartets. Although the San Francisco Performances website promoted this concert (the group’s eighth here) with a video of a gut-wrenching Shostakovich quartet, this concert focused on earlier composers who established the string quartet form in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

The only nod to anything more recent was the opening work, Benjamin Britten’s lightly enhanced arrangement of a familiar Chaconne by Henry Purcell. Played gracefully, the elegant work made a nice appetizer. With cellist Paul Watkins (who replaced Finckel ten years ago) as the anchor, the fundamental bass line and the weaving counterpoint emerged smoothly.

Watkins added a welcome personality to the quartet’s poker-faced façade. As the only player facing the audience directly, he gave them something to look at as his facial expressions and body language reflected the music’s emotional content almost bar-by-bar. In every piece, his sleek playing and solid sense of rhythm served to lift the music to a higher plane.

That was apparent in Haydn’s String Quartet No.5 in G major, part of a set in which the composer wrangled the form into something like mini-symphonies. With Drucker in the first chair, the musicians traced the gradual development of the aria-like original tune in the first movement to bring out the growing complexity. It subsided nicely at the end, transitioning into the song of the slow movement, and bounced along deftly in the lively Scherzo. The Finale, with its skippy rhythms, was joyful.

Mozart dedicated his String Quartet No.15 in D minor to Haydn. He made several nods to his elder contemporary, especially in the finale’s theme and variations where the tune bears more than a passing resemblance to Haydn’s in the earlier quartet. The Emerson’s playing became richer and more somber, another hallmark of their ability to adjust their style to the music, here lending extra depth to Mozart, investing the music with sustained intensity as it unfolded. It communicated that what we were hearing was important stuff, but without any stuffiness. It all flowed elegantly.

After the intermission, Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor No.2 emerged with more muscle. With Setzer in the first chair, the ensemble’s sound carried without taking anything away from the sensitive phrasing. That was another aspect of this group’s articulation that paid dividends throughout the recital: an ability to find subtle touches of phrasing in almost every measure that managed to feel utterly natural, not mannered.

Especially fine was the second movement, marked Molto adagio, which unfolded with a dreamy sense of flotation without losing the underlying, slow-moving rhythm. They made no effort to soften the offbeat rhythms of the Allegretto that followed, edgy and a bit chaotic. But when the Finale’s quotation of the Russian tune (which Mussorgsky later used for Boris Godunov’s coronation scene) finally arrived, the quartet was off and running on a quest to see how clearly they could trace all of Beethoven’s contrapuntal twists with that theme.

Not to take anything away from the Haydn and Mozart, of the three big pieces on this program, the Beethoven was the most complete, an arresting performance.

The encore was Dvořák’s bittersweet setting for string quartet of the song ‘I Wander Often Past Yonder House’ (‘Kol domu se teď potácím’) from Cypresses. Drucker introduced it as an apt summation of how the members of the quartet felt about bringing their long collaboration to a close. Rather than a heart-on-sleeve sob-fest, this was a clear-eyed yet on-point reflection that was true to their personalities, as was the entire concert.

Harvey Steiman

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