Music Review: The Emerson String Quartet at Carnegie Hall

January 9th, 2013

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Emerson String Quartet This ensemble and its guests: from left, Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Colin Carr, David Finckel, Paul Neubauer and Lawrence Dutton at Carnegie Hall on Monday. Mr. Finckel plans to leave the group at the end of the season.

As the cellist David Finckel played a bittersweet melody in the first movement of Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2 in G at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening, it was hard not to recall that this is the last season he will perform with the Emerson String Quartet. Mr. Finckel announced last year that he would leave the ensemble, which he joined in 1979, to dedicate more time to his other substantial endeavors, which include the artistic directorship of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with his wife, the pianist Wu Han.

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After decades together and a prestigious career, some ensembles, like the Guarneri String Quartet, disband. Others, like the Juilliard String Quartet, regroup with personnel changes. Fortunately, the Emerson musicians decided that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and recruited the cellist Paul Watkins to replace Mr. Finckel. It will be the first membership change in more than three decades, since Mr. Finckel, the violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and the violist Lawrence Dutton began performing together.

The Carnegie concert on Monday (originally scheduled for November but postponed because of Hurricane Sandy) was a reminder of what propelled the ensemble into chamber music stardom. Their impeccable blend and rich, muscular sound have long impressed in a range of repertory.

Chamber music is, by definition, ill suited to large halls, although on this occasion the ensemble’s extroverted playing usually projected across the vast space. In the Brahms string sextet, the group was joined by the cellist Colin Carr and the violist Paul Neubauer for a beautifully shaped, polished reading, distinguished by its expressive phrasing and the glowing tone of individual performers.

All three works in the program, which included the String Quartet in A minor (Op. 51, No. 2) and the Piano Quintet in F minor (Op. 34), were written in the 1860s and early 1870s and heralded Brahms’s coming of age as a chamber music composer.

The Emerson offered a passionate performance of the A minor Quartet, whose charms are more subtle than those of the alluring sextet and whose elusive character partly reflects Brahms’s efforts to mesh the Classical and Romantic elements of his temperament and musical language.

That aesthetic blend is also evident in the piano quintet, for which the Emerson players were joined by Yefim Bronfman. He proved the ideal partner for the ensemble, his powerful sound, fiery playing and elegant musicianship a potent match for its burnished tone and dynamic approach.

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