There was a tang of electricity in the air at the Music Center at Strathmore on Wednesday night — but there always is when the Emerson String Quartet is in town. Nearly four decades of playing together have made this one of the most insightful chamber music groups on the planet, and the near-telepathic unity of their interpretations can seem almost miraculous. But there was a note of poignancy in the air as well, for just the day before, cellist David Finckel had announced he would be leaving at the end of the 2012-2013 season — the first member to leave in 34 years.
If the news had dampened the group’s spirits, though, it didn’t show. Haydn’s witty Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2 opened the program, and the Emersons turned in an absolutely engaging reading, full of Haydn’s magnificent, endlessly generous intelligence.
Pianist Wu Han (dressed in such a billowing, colorful outfit that it looked like a giant butterfly had taken the stage) joined Finckel, violinist Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton for a sweeping account of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25. It’s always a revelation to hear the Emersons play Brahms; they’ve sometimes been accused of being a bit bloodless in their approach to the romantics. But for those who find Brahms a little — shall we say — overstuffed, the group’s expressive conciseness only enhances the impact. And this was, in every sense, a juggernaut of a performance, building relentlessly to the fierce, roiling “Rondo in Hungarian Style” that closes the work.
Eugene Drucker returned to the stage to take the lead violin role in Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. It was a fine choice to end the program: as deep and involving as the Brahms, but more open and full of light — and played with perfectly paced restraint that made it never less than gripping.