Back in the academic year 1969-70, two violinists, Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, met as students at Juilliard. Both came from musical families and, as they quickly discovered, shared a similar perspective on chamber music. By 1976, the Emerson Quartet was born.
Almost a half-century later — or more precisely, at Sunday afternoon’s Celebrity Series presentation — there they were, alongside violist Lawrence Dutton (also a member from nearly the beginning) and cellist Paul Watkins (who arrived in 2013), taking the stage of a sold-out Jordan Hall for their final concert in Boston, part of their farewell tour that will conclude in October in New York. Their gait was relaxed yet purposeful. You could feel the sense of occasion. And the moment they walked out from the wings, the audience let forth a vast wave of applause.
Within what you might call the typology of applause, this one was different — not the noise of a hall thrilled by a particular work but the sound of an audience voicing a deeper and wider ranging gratitude, in this case, for decade after decade of the Emerson’s serious, sincere, and often inspired service to the art form and its public. Over the years, this foursome has sustained an ethic of integrity and dedication, and a commitment to letting the music speak for itself. They have not only navigated the great string quartet repertoire but helped to define the terrain itself.
The Emerson, after all, was almost certainly the very first quartet ever to perform all six of Bartok’s quartets on a single epic program, back in 1981 in Alice Tully Hall. They also performed (and recorded) landmark cycles devoted to the complete quartets of Shostakovich and Beethoven, helping especially in the case of Bartok and Shostakovich, to consolidate listeners’ understanding of these bodies of work as the two defining quartet cycles of the 20th century.
Fittingly all three composers were represented on this farewell program, which began with Bartok’s Quartet No. 2. Drucker’s own program note described this piece as a janus-faced work composed during the First World War, full of music that looks by turns backward, nostalgically, at the Romantic past and forward, despairingly, into an uncertain future. The Emerson’s performance on Sunday attended to both of these expressive edges with playing that was knowing, nuanced, and vital. If their reading lacked a small quotient of the fire and structural definition captured in the group’s superb recording from the late 1980s, it compensated with its depth, coloristic variety, and insight.
Shostakovich was represented by his Twelfth Quartet, a sorrowful and unapologetically dark creation of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union, and perhaps not the first piece I would have imagined on a farewell tour program. The music’s darkness, however, is occasionally leavened by the pure brilliance and virtuosity of the composer’s instrumental writing, and by that sense of mordant wit that seems to have never left him. The Emerson brought out these qualities, navigating this difficult music with forthright authority and a lean, focused sound. Also on the first half was a compelling account of George Walker’s understated and touchingly songful “Lyric for Strings.”
Then, following intermission, we were suddenly at the program’s final selection: Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59, No. 2, one of the cornerstone works of the composer’s great “middle period” in which he also wrote the “Eroica” Symphony. The Emerson’s performance, though not without blemish, was by turns refined, rhythmically charged, and, in the presto Finale, glorious.
As they have always done, Setzer and Drucker on Sunday alternated on first violin. This rotation system — rare back when the Emerson began but less unusual nowadays — may be one under-appreciated component of the group’s longevity. Not only does such a scheme preserve equality in what can otherwise become a hierarchical relationship, it also guarantees that the second violin part, a particularly key voice in any quartet’s blend, is always rendered by a player who is strong and confident enough to also play first.
In this case, it was Drucker who, after the robust ovation following the Beethoven, addressed the crowd to thank the city’s musical public for its support over the decades. As an encore, a work like Beethoven’s Cavatina from his Op. 130 might have reflected or even intensified the emotional tone of the moment, but the Emerson instead opted for a lighter, graceful landing courtesy of one of Dvorak’s “Cypresses,” versions of the composer’s own brief songs arranged by him for string quartet (and recorded last year by the Emerson).
Even in this miniature, however, as he does in so many works, Dvorak finds beauty within wistfulness, a sense of reluctant but ultimately tender acceptance of life’s ephemerality. Something of that spirit remained as the audience rose to express its gratitude one last time, and the players walked off the stage.
EMERSON STRING QUARTET
Presented by the Celebrity Series
At Jordan Hall, Jan. 22