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Review: The Great Emerson String Quartet Takes Its Final Bow

Farewell to the Emerson String Quartet, a group that has beaten at the heart of chamber music in the United States, and far beyond, for almost half a century.

More than two years after the essential string quartet of its era announced that it had decided to retire, its players took their final bows on Sunday before an Alice Tully Hall audience that paid them the best tribute any musician can hope to receive: listening, and listening well.

The time was right, and the place was, too. It was on a Sunday in 1981 that the Emerson made its breakthrough on that very stage, playing all six Bartok quartets in a single, three-and-a-half-hour-plus sitting. The host of Sunday’s concert, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is the institution for which the Emerson served as quartet in residence from 1982 to 1989, and for which its cellist David Finckel left the ensemble in 2013 to co-direct.

Finckel’s departure permitted his successor, Paul Watkins, to spend a decade with the violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer to his right, and Lawrence Dutton, the violist, to his left. Even at the end, as Finckel rejoined the group for one last performance of the Schubert String Quintet, Watkins looked as if he could barely believe his luck.

Who would feel any differently? For if Sunday’s concert was a reminder of anything, it was that the Emerson String Quartet was never just a string quartet. It was an establishment, a touchstone, a catalyst. Entire generations of listeners grew up with its recordings, or made one of the hundred and more concerts it undertook each year, with famous collegiality, a habitual date in their diaries. As early as 1984, George Tsontakis had composed it a piece called “Emerson,” as if it already owned the genre; Sarah Kirkland Snider, the last living composer whose music it played, has written that, to her, the Emerson catalog had appeared to be “the definitive interpretation of all the great string quartets in history.”

From left, Drucker, Setzer, Watkins and Dutton in the concert’s first half.Credit…Da Ping Luo

Was the Emerson the Emerson to the end? Close enough. “We were afraid of going on too long,” Setzer said recently, and Sunday suggested that he, Drucker and Dutton have stopped at the timeliest of moments, without cause for regret. Watkins, a soloist and a conductor before he took his chance, still has half his career ahead of him. There were speeches on Sunday, quiet notes of pathos, even a joke or two, but nothing really to get in the way of the music, which is as it should be. The Schubert received a heartfelt performance of inimitable focus, and before it came Beethoven’s Opus 130, with the “Grosse Fuge” duly included as its finale. It was exactly the valediction that one would have hoped for.

It was also touching. Nobody could pretend that Sunday saw the Emerson reclaim the heights from which it conquered chamber music, though it was hardly far-off. If its most celebrated predecessors, the Juilliard after World War II and the Guarneri later on, were responsible for a boom in American quartet playing, then it was the Emerson’s part to demonstrate how accomplished a quartet could become. Surely it was not a coincidence that Setzer, who once told The New York Times that “when things aren’t together in the quartet, it sets off a real alarm,” was the son of two violinists in George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra, and taught by two of its concertmasters.

It did not take the Emerson long to set the formidable technical standards that we take for granted among chamber musicians today. “After five minutes of playing,” the critic Bernard Holland wrote of that Bartok concert in 1981, “one began to assume perfection. There were no disappointments.” There are none to be heard, either, in the Emerson’s recorded legacy, which, with all its vitality and its security, Deutsche Grammophon ensured defined the sound of a quartet in the digital age. Hearing them now is to be confronted with persistent excellence, an enduring commitment to quality that any musician would be proud of.

If there was ever a justified criticism of the Emerson, it was that its playing was too responsible, too objective, too bland. That was not the case at its passing. Rarely can this ensemble have shaped Schubert’s melodies with such humanity and poignancy, or given such a raw, intense account of the Beethoven fugue. The Cavatina, the delicate emotional core of the Opus 130, will resound in the memory as little short of heartbreaking, and for all the right reasons: As its song faltered on the first violin, it seemed to be embraced, as if the other instruments were helping it through.

Farewell, then, to the Emerson. But not to what made it great.

Emerson String Quartet

Performed on Sunday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan.

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