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Emerson Quartet, Warmth in the Ice

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Journeys (Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg), Emerson Quartet, P. Neubauer, C. Carr
The Emerson's current season in Washington, the first with new cellist Paul Watkins, began in October at the Kennedy Center. After missing the first of their concerts on the Smithsonian Associates series, I braved the icy weather for the second one, Sunday evening at the National Museum of Natural History. In October, there were minor intonation inconsistencies heard from Watkins, but encouraging signs of a breakthrough towards a new group sound in the Britten quartet they played. Once again here, the Emersons seemed to be moving away from their strident, forceful way with the music towards a warmer palette of sound. The opening work, Mozart's sixteenth quartet (E-flat major, K. 428), was the best example of this, with just the right tempos and the overall tenor of the work set by the mysterious opening unison melody. There were tiny problems, including what sounded like a slipped beat in the first movement, but all were covered nicely, and the golden color of the ensemble sound seemed to strike into new territory, especially in the inner movements, with Eugene Drucker's sweet-toned first violin complemented nicely by the spicier second violin of Philip Setzer.

The Emerson Quartet's Bartók quartets have generally ranked somewhere below our favorite, the Takács Quartet, but the modified sound from the group turned their performance of the second quartet more in that direction, drawing out the softer, speech-like, folkish elements in the first movement, including some beautiful murmuring textures. The more discordant parts were still hammered and clashing, but nicely voiced rather than just walloped, with a second movement that still sounded savage without being overpowered, flurries of notes played with gravitas and nerve, and a particularly effective mutes-on section. Setzer's more powerful tone better suited to first violin here, in the burning, moody lament of the third movement, marked by an intensity that never flagged.

Beginning with their November concert at the Smithsonian and concluding with the next concert in January, the Emersons are performing all three of Beethoven's op. 59 ("Rasumovsky") quartets. With no. 2, in E minor, the group seemed to return more to its normal, more strident sound, pushing the tempos to the fast side just a bit, forcing the tone a little bit, which caused some intonation issues, especially in the first movement. The second movement, at a tempo that did not seem quite slow enough for Adagio Molto, had some lovely moments, while the third movement was the most satisfying, a relaxed Allegretto with playful syncopations and a more controlled sound, especially in the rollicking major-key trio. The finale hit the Emersons in the wheelhouse, with its jaunty dotted rhythms driving the piece to a thrilling conclusion.

The next concert by the Emerson Quartet's Smithsonian Associates series will be on January 12, 2014, at the National Museum of Natural History.

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