LENOX — Earlier this year, the durable Emerson String Quartet underwent its first personnel change in 34 years when cellist David Finckel left the group. His replacement is the British cellist Paul Watkins, and at Tanglewood on Wednesday, the quartet gave its first Massachusetts performance in its new configuration. No doubt the question on the minds of many listeners at Ozawa Hall was how different this Emerson would be from its former incarnation. The answer — a provisional one, to be sure — emerged over the course of Wednesday’s concert, piece by piece.
They opened with Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3. It quickly became apparent that while Watkins doesn’t play with the forthright projection with which Finckel anchored the Emerson, his sound is warmer and more rounded. He seemed intent on blending into the ensemble, though he could stand out when needed, as was clear from his lovely if brief solos during the slow movement. As a whole, the quartet’s playing seemed lighter and less edgy than it has in the past, though there was something unsettled about the performance.
They followed with the Third Quartet of Britten, a composer whom the Emerson has rarely, if ever, played in the past. Shadowy and haunted, the quartet was written as Britten was dying and contains resonances of his last opera, “Death in Venice.” The group handled Britten’s ephemeral textures and furious outbursts with equal assurance, and violinist Philip Setzer negotiated the stratospheric solos of the third movement gracefully and with just a couple of intonational slips. The final movement — a lament over a recurring bass line — was devastating.
Emerson String Quartet
But the differences between the old and new Emersons was clearest in Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1. It begins with a rising cello line, which in the Finckel days would emerge boldly and usually set the stage for an assertive, almost swaggering performance. As Watkins played it, though, it was mellower and more lyrical, a question rather than an avowal. And that was true for the rest of the performance, which seemed more deliberate and considered than past performances. But there was also plenty of drama when needed, especially in the inner movements. The piece is packed with cello solos, and each one had a beautiful, almost vocal quality to it. It was a different approach but no less winning, and showed that the group already has impressive cohesion.
For an encore, the Emerson brought out the finale of the C major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3, a contrapuntal frenzy that the Emerson could bring off like no other group. This time it didn’t quite have the sizzle (or the polished ensemble) that four people with decades of experience playing together can marshal. Nevertheless, the Emerson Mark II is off to a very promising start. It will be fascinating to see how it evolves.