When Brahms is played in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery -- the ultimate Victorian drawing room -- there is an ideal meeting of music and ambiance. Such a meeting took place last night when the Emerson Quartet's program (which will be repeated tonight and tomorrow) included his Quintet in G, Op. 111.
The sense of traveling back in time was not upheld in the performance, but that was a blessing if we can judge by the earliest soft-focused, portamento-ridden, slackly phrased recordings of string quartets. The Emerson Quartet presents a Brahms precise and vigorous in attack, utterly secure in intonation, tightly focused in style and usually quite outspoken about the music's emotional implications. Scott Nickrenz, who will formally become a colleague of the quartet later this year when it is incorporated into the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, sat in smoothly as second violist.
If the evening had a star, it would be hard to pick him out in such seamless music-making. But the quartet's violist, Lawrence Dutton, drew specially favorable attention in the Brahms -- perhaps because, for once, he did not feel outnumbered by the violins. Several solo passages for the first viola, particularly in the slow movement, stood out in rich, dark tone and sensitive phrasing.
Dutton was less fortunate (though only momentarily) in the Mozart Trio in E-flat, K. 498, when his sound was buried in that of clarinetist Loren Kitt and pianist Lambert Orkis. But he was glorious, as was the whole ensemble, in Ravel's Quartet in F--a riot of contrasting colors and delicately shifting nuances that put the Emerson's skills firmly in the spotlight.