In “A Late Quartet,” a film currently in theaters, a venerable New York-based string quartet is brought to the brink of dissolution when its longtime cellist decides his time has come to leave the group. Hollywood has a hard time accurately depicting classical musicians, and in the film’s risibly melodramatic climax, a performance breaks off mid-movement as the cellist rises from his seat to deliver his farewell speech to an astonished audience.
Fortunately for us, music rarely imitates movies imitating music. David Finckel, the longtime real-life cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, calmly announced earlier this year that this current season will be his last with the ensemble. Far from melodramatic, this move has long seemed inevitable as Finckel has been piling up commitments outside of the quartet as a soloist, educator, and administrator. The British cellist Paul Watkins will be replacing him, but for now, Finckel and the group are still touring. Sunday afternoon’s Celebrity Series recital in Jordan Hall was its last local appearance in the configuration known so well to Boston audiences from the group’s many visits over the years.
Taking a step back, one might turn the issue on its head and ask not why a musically gifted and artistically inquisitive musician like Finckel would want to explore new terrain after more than three decades in the quartet, but how the same four players managed to stick together for as long as they did.
I once asked Finckel this very question, years before his decision to leave. He told me about the Emerson’s policy of granting each member veto power over major artistic projects, and about the rich lives they have each always maintained external to the quartet. But he also insisted it came down to individual approach. “You are in charge of your own part, but you have to be as appreciative of the joy of giving as you are of receiving,” he said. “You have to like being the janitor in the basement as well as the doorman out in front.”
Of course, a quartet’s deeper chemistry will always be on some level impossible for an outsider to grasp, but this aspect must at least be part of it. The Emerson has been a group with individualized players yet without a single star. That the two violinists — Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer — constantly trade off on first and second violin seems like a symbolic choice as much as a musical one.
As for Sunday’s concert itself, the business-as-usual selection of works by Dvorak, Schumann, and Brahms seemed designed to project anything but a grand farewell, and a small note in the program likewise appeared crafted to both affirm and diffuse the moment’s significance. The playing, as expected, was dependably solid and strong, if seldom reaching for transcendence. The general muscularity and corporate heft in the group’s sound seemed less artfully deployed in the opening work, Dvorak’s Quartet No. 9 (Op. 34), whose lighter, folk-inflected charms felt only partly realized. But that same muscular sound brought ample rewards in a warmly expressive reading of Schumann’s A-Major Quartet (Op. 41, No. 3) and a heated, at times feisty account of Brahms’s A-minor Quartet (Op. 51, No. 2). By this point, these four players think and breathe together almost involuntarily, and certain details — like the immaculate balance in the final chord of the stirring slow movement of the Schumann, to name just one — seem to emerge almost automatically.
The group’s encore, the briefest of selections from Webern’s Five Movements (Op. 5), Brought some of the most riveting playing of the night: tightly organized, full of icy crystalline sounds, small gestures containing multitudes. It also seemed to capture the broader moment for these four individual players — in its unsentimental yet weighted poise, its sense of a tradition distilled, and a music balanced between retrospection and possibility.