The Emerson String Quartet’s new lineup — with cellist Paul Watkins in the chair formerly held by David Finckel — is no longer so new. It is, in fact, a few months away from its second anniversary. And though this was the first Boston visit by this configuration, it has already given numerous concerts elsewhere in Massachusetts. Yet this one — the quartet’s 21st appearance in the Celebrity Series — featured material unusual in the Emerson’s programming: music very old (Purcell) and very new (Lowell Liebermann), along with a mainstay, Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132.
It’s tempting, though perhaps inaccurate, to think that the Purcell was added to the quartet’s repertoire by Watkins, a Welshman. In two Fantasies, the Emerson, playing with little vibrato, came surprisingly close to the spare feel of the viols for which the pieces were originally written. The sound was deeper and less austere in Purcell’s Chacony, arranged for string quartet by Britten.
Liebermann, an American composer, wrote that while his Fifth Quartet — heard here in its Boston premiere — has no extramusical program, it was “at least partly influenced by any number of depressing/terrifying events of the kind with which we are all bombarded daily.” Particular events are not identified, but the piece’s haunted tone is unmistakable.
The piece has a strict symmetrical form, with a grim Shostakovichian scherzo at its center. So clear is the architecture that the episodes leading up to and away from it are clear even at first listening. Liebermann’s writing is unambiguously tonal, even in its most dissonant moments, but that often-noted fact is less important than the utterly idiomatic string writing and the profusion of melodies that are everywhere apparent. Even the melancholy is refined and polished, as was the Emerson’s performance.
The Beethoven was more uneven, and not only because of the surprising number of intonation problems, especially early on. The Emerson’s way with Beethoven was a known quantity in its previous incarnation — vivid and propulsive, with a maximum of contrast. On Thursday, though, the dramatic path seemed less certain, the shape of the movements imprecise. Where Finckel always seemed to be at the forefront of the texture, Watkins supported the upper three voices more lyrically but also more discreetly, even when one wished he were more assertive. Only in the finale did the foursome seem to achieve the needed level of abandon.
This is, of course, part of the evolution that occurs when a group takes on a new member. For the Emerson it is a fascinating process.
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David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com.