The Emerson String Quartet received two standing ovations Saturday evening, one as they entered Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, and another when they finished their program of Haydn, Bartok and Schubert. The initial burst of love was to mark a major milestone in the history of American chamber music: the first change in the blue-chip ensemble’s membership since 1979. The second ovation was earned the usual way, through the exceptional musicianship displayed in Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C, one of the most popular works in the repertory and, with two cello parts, a touching way to pass the baton from departing cellist David Finckel to incoming member Paul Watkins.
The Emersons have an impeccable track record, dozens of admired recordings and a consistent history of serious and humble dedication to the chamber literature. They are to the string quartet literature what the white-box gallery is to art: objective, unsentimental, untroubled by neuroses or strange tics of interpretation, and always transparently in service to the music. Everything they play sounds good, from the classic and foundational works of Haydn to the terrifyingly complex studies in entropy and integration in Bartok (for some listeners, their recorded cycle of Bartok quartets displaced the magisterial recordings of the Juilliard Quartet as the best of the best).
The Emerson sound is crisp but not dry, bright but not shrill, and they like a light touch, never overplaying the room or digging so deep into the string that the sound becomes raspy and ugly. Individual voices are heard with great clarity, although by mutual agreement (so it seems) no precedence is given any one player, including either of the two violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who regularly switch off between the first and second part. Finckel’s cello tone, with a slight twang, has always fitted in seamlessly, not so much the bass ground on which the quartet is built but an eloquent baritone who keeps his ardor within tasteful bounds.
Nothing daunts the Emersons, who have played so long together, and each member at such a high technical level, that their performances can sometimes be a tad austere. The conversational aspect of chamber music, the sense of friends discovering where the music is going in the process of making it, has been entirely subsumed into something more refined and polished. They don’t converse but issue perfect rhetorical overviews of the music at hand. Neither Drucker nor Setzer is likely to waste a smile while performing, which has no bearing on the music but is an accurate visual analogue for their aversion to anything that smacks of rough fiddling or gooey emotion.
This basic worldview of the quartet literature flatters Bartok more than Haydn and Schubert. Haydn’s String Quartet in D, from Opus 20, isn’t the most rambunctious of Haydn’s chamber works, but it does devolve in its last two movements into something robustly Hungarian, with the Minuetto marked “alla zingarese,” or in “gypsy style.” The performance Saturday was stronger in the front half of the work, an extended first movement and a taut set of variations in the second. Here one was thankful for the white-glove treatment, the pure finesse with which Haydn’s wrong notes, and curious juxtapositions of mock pomposity and deflating bawdiness, were bound up into a coherent whole. As the work takes a peasant turn in the last two movements, it wants more joy and revelry than Drucker is willing to give. Here it seemed the music was under glass, perfectly preserved, but too tightly controlled to feel fully alive.
The Schubert too was both thrilling and frustrating. Only a few minutes into the exposition of the first movement, some lovely, plump but well-mannered pizzicato plucking from Watkins gave assurance that he will be a good fit with the remaining members of the ensemble now that Finckel is gone (he “retires” to an active life as professor of cello at Juilliard, and co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Music@Menlo festival in California). The oversize first movement was masterfully shaped, and the Adagio was a thing of wonder, a glass-still sea of sustained notes over which tiny snatches of melodic material float and gather meaning with a breathless, almost Zen-like suspension of tension or animation. But again, in the fourth movement, when Schubert unleashes the Viennese mawkishness, the tawdry cafe-music schmaltz, Setzer was instead sober and polite, the professor at the party who refuses to dance.
The Bartok, Quartet No. 3, however, was unimpeachable. The musicians’ command of this fiendishly difficult music gave one exactly the thing that was missing in the Haydn: a sense that they were enacting, or living, this study in chaos and control, in which individual players storm off into atomized solitude, then find themselves gathered back into the fold by some strange force of integration. The music is both emphatic and inconclusive, with Bartok using every color, every sonic technique available to the four stringed instruments. This can often sound merely wild and garish, but the Emerson players made it sound not barbaric, but a study in violence within civilized bounds.
After intermission, Finckel said a few words to the audience, thanking them for their loyalty, and the Smithsonian Associates for the long association between the quartet and Washington. He noted the presence of Carl Girshman, an Emerson groupie who said he has attended at least 200 of their performances. He paid tribute to the quartet for their decision to go on without him, and to Watkins, his replacement. It was a short and classy speech, and typical of the Emerson aesthetic. They will never smother the music with love, but they always treat it and the audience with profound respect.