A review of the Emerson String Quartet’s appearance on the International Chamber Series at Meany on April 21, 2015.

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Concert review

For nearly 40 years, the Emerson String Quartet has commanded a certain reverence from music lovers. Its polished and authoritative performances, its comprehensive and mighty discography, its fearless embrace of the new and unusual as well as the classics — all have placed this string quartet high in the pantheon of chamber music.

For all those reasons, the appearance of the Emersons on the International Chamber Music Series at Meany was an eagerly awaited event Tuesday evening, and the quartet did not disappoint. Even the arrival of a new cellist (Paul Watkins) in 2013 has not disrupted the ensemble’s famous unity; if anything, Watkins’ energetic approach has revitalized the Emerson’s lineup, which includes founding violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker (alternating as first violin) and violist Lawrence Dutton. Since 2002, those three players have stood, rather than sat, for performances; the cellist necessarily performs seated (on a small podium that places him near the same height as the other three).

The Meany program demonstrated the Emersons’ remarkable versatility — stretching from a 17th-century Purcell “Chacony in G Minor” to a Lowell Liebermann quartet (No. 5) composed just last year. In between those extremes were two works by acknowledged quartet-writing masters, Shostakovich (his No. 7) and Beethoven (No. 15, better known as the Opus 132).

This juicy program was all carefully characterized, from the pointed accents and wide emotional range of the Purcell to the more acerbic Shostakovich and the occasionally rambunctious Liebermann score. The Liebermann was particularly interesting: an unsettling, darker opening, then a wild scherzo, and finally a lovely, richly harmonized section that sounds a bit like Samuel Barber, as the ensemble restlessly changes keys.

Even the Emerson isn’t infallible, and throughout the program there were occasional slips in intonation and ensemble. Those were minor, however, in comparison with the quartet’s overall interpretive finesse.

The capstone of the evening, the majestic Op. 132, showed the quartet’s affinity with late Beethoven (his last quartets are among his final compositions in any genre). Its patient but incisive exploration of this sprawling, multidirectional score — there are five movements, some of them with titled sub-movements, all of them innovative in a way that startled Beethoven’s contemporaries — was remarkable to hear.

The four players traversed this vast quartet with an imposing variety of timbres, particularly effective in the graceful second movement and the organ-like sonorities of the third. This is music the Emersons know intimately, and their long history with Beethoven was evident in every polished phrase.