It takes more than a ringing cellphone to faze the Emerson String Quartet. Now celebrating the ensemble’s 40th season, the silver-haired, suit-and-tie-clad veterans were poised to start their performance Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall when a shrill sound went up from the audience. They smiled wryly, waited for the offending gadget to be silenced, and proceeded to do what they do best: distill music down to its purest essence.
Two of four founding members (violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker) remain in the group. Both violinists alternate playing first chair, a chair in name only: All but cellist Paul Watkins play standing up. This magnificent performance, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, manifested the assiduous knowledge they have accumulated over years of practicing and performing each part. The first movement of Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor (K. 421) was laced with subtle tension and intrigue, Drucker coloring his first violin with thin, bright, piercing lines that streaked above the others. The second movement was smooth but not overly silky, and the jumping rhythmic ambiguity of the third movement Menuetto made the old tune sound decidedly contemporary.
Shostakovich’s compact String Quartet No. 10 (Op. 118), written two centuries later, provided a striking contrast. The sparse instrumentation of the first movement allowed each player a moment in the front, and Watkins’s cello was rich with a decisive bite. The next movement, marked furioso, telegraphed the kind of restrained rage that is always more terrifying to behold than all-out howling. The melody moved around the solo voices in a whirlwind, the other players adding percussive slashes. I didn’t realize how much my heart rate had increased until the last note lashed the air. That buzzing, anxious energy lingered in the pensive passacaglia, and the final movement juxtaposed prickly chromaticism in the violins with a sweet major key song from Watkins’s cello and Lawrence Dutton’s viola.
Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major began as lush and cool as a glass flower, light refracting through petal-like phrases from Setzer’s first violin. The four instruments’ tones melded together to evoke a piquant flamenco guitar in the second movement, and the final movements splashed with quiet but distinct color. The audience demanded an encore, and the quartet delivered Beethoven.
No extraneous theatrics gilded the afternoon’s performance. Everything that needed to be said was in the music. When delivered with such deep understanding, a performance like this can externalize the ineffable. It can help us see our complex, exhausting world more beautifully, if only until the last note fades.
Emerson String Quartet
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Jordan Hall, Sunday.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.