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Three great works, in utterly different styles, made a revealing vehicle for the Emerson String Quartet’s first Seattle appearance since sustaining the first personnel change in its 37-year history. Welshman Paul Watkins, replacing David Finckel as the quartet’s cellist, has been with the ensemble only since May, but it was clear from his impressive contributions to Tuesday’s Meany Hall concert that he is a worthy successor to Finckel, and moreover that he has managed to harmonize his manner of playing very rapidly with his colleagues’ long-established style.

They dedicated their concert to Toby Saks, cellist, University of Washington professor for 37 years, and founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. (A moving celebration of her life took place in Benaroya Hall just the previous evening, attended by about 1,000 grateful music-lovers.) The dedication of a concert in UW’s chamber-music series to her memory could hardly have been more appropriate, since it was Saks whose three pioneering decades of artistic leadership transformed Seattle into the thriving chamber-music town it now is. Appropriate too was the presence on the program of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, a work she particularly loved.

At the start of the evening, Mozart’s E-flat-major Quartet, K. 428, one of the celebrated set of six he dedicated to his friend Haydn, had begun with tone that seemed a little dry. The sound was short of the trademark Emerson warmth, and the attacks were rather fierce for so mellow and expressive a work.

That impression faded as the ensemble’s tone gradually warmed up, and the dashing yet thoughtful finale, with its deadpan main theme and the heart-catching forte accent that enriches the impact of its mellifluous subordinate theme, was played with a wit that indeed suggested Haydn. But I couldn’t help wondering whether perhaps the players’ minds might have been initially distracted by thoughts of what was to follow the Mozart — the Mendelssohn F-minor String Quartet, Op. 80.

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The last substantial work the composer completed, this is indeed a piece that demands fierceness, even savagery, in its performance. Written when he was grieving over his much-loved sister Fanny’s early death, it is a grim outpouring of passionate suffering. With Philip Setzer, in accordance with the ensemble’s customary exchange of places, taking over first-violin duties from Eugene Drucker, the searing accents and suitably rhetorical phrasing of the performance did full justice to music far removed from the gentle charm we associate perhaps too readily with Mendelssohn.

Seattle concert pianist and University of Washington professor Craig Sheppard joined the quartet for the Shostakovich piece, collaborating in an account that comprehensively realized this wonderful work’s range of mood and its broad dynamic scale, from tiptoeing pianissimos in the slow fugue and intermezzo to full-blooded fortissimos elsewhere. Along with some spine-tingling soft playing by both violinists, Lawrence Dutton contributed searching viola lines, and Watkins was a tower of strength at the bottom of the ensemble. Sheppard’s familiar crystal-clear articulation was especially valuable in the finale — smiling music that is almost Schubertian in its blend of simplicity and lyrical grace.

Bernard Jacobson:

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