The trademark sound of the Emerson String Quartet is long on muscularity and precision, but sometimes short on warmth and subtlety. At their season finale in the Smithsonian Resident Associates series at the National Museum of Natural History on Sunday night, the foursome was true to its strengths but also showed a surprising and pleasing unpredictability.
In the Washington premiere of American composer Pierre Jalbert’s fifth quartet, created for the Emerson and debuted in Houston last month, the sound was rarely pushed to the edge. A vocabulary of otherworldly effects — gently squealing harmonics like electronic feedback, spidery glissandi, microtonal bends, all with Eugene Drucker’s pure, sweet tone on first violin at the fore — were handled with consummate virtuosity but always at the service of the overall musical shape, inspired by the migrations of French-speaking people to and within the New World. The group attacked the anxious, machine-like scherzo (“Upheaval”) with strident accuracy but also gave an understated, lush radiance to the third-movement variations on an Acadian folk song.