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New cellist enlivens Emerson String Quartet

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 12:57 a.m.

Many a venerable string quartet has found changing personnel can be frought with peril. But the return of the Emerson String Quartet with a new cellist produced a wonderful concert on Tuesday night to open the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society season at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

The American ensemble was formed in 1976 and was quickly recognized as one of the world's great quartets. It maintained its original membership until May, when English cellist Paul Watkins began rehearsing with his new colleagues. He brings unusually varied experience to his new position, having been principal cellist of the BBC Symphony, cellist of the larger chamber group the Nash Ensemble, solo cellist in concerti, and conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra – all based in London.

The concert began with Walfgang Amadeus Mozart's Quartet in E flat major, K. 428, one of the set of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn, the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. Mozart grew from writing his Haydn Quartets, which have uncommonly rich textures and are his best works in the medium.

Watkins' presence was most immediately and obviously noticeable in his more assertive presentation of the cello part. He has beautiful tone and plays more strongly in the lower register than his predecessor did.

The ripples of Watkin's musical personality encouraged the always admirable violist Lawrence Dutton. They played together extremely. The personalities of violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer flourished.

But the whole musical spirit of the performance felt different. Quick tempi felt less pressured and the musicians played more into the phrases.

Not surprisingly given this group of musicians has been playing together for only five months, there is also obvious room for growth. The first movement really hit its stride in the recapitulation. Similarly, the Menuetto's opening idea was most successful when it returned after the Trio. There were also some pitch issues.

Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 3 completed the first half. It was written at the very end of his life, after completing the opera “Death in Venice,” when he was growing progressively weaker from heart disease.

Violinist Philip Setzer, who played second violin in the Mozart, took first chair for the Britten. He played exquisitely in the third movement, a solo, and led strongly in the deeply moving Recitative and Passacaglia that ends the work. Altogether, the performance of the Britten was a knowing and communicative performance of a great composer's final masterpiece.

Violinist Eugene Drucker was back on first chair for Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, after intermission. There was more tempo flexibility than I remember from Emerson Beethoven performances, and it was all for the sake of characterization – more space for lyrical nuace but also speeding up at places where the music's excitement suggests it.

The finale was not merely fast. It also had visceral excitement. And crucially, Setzer had just the right touch for the one passage near the end where the second violin has a more slowly moving and lyrical line.

The encore, with Setzer playing first, was the slow movement of Felix Mendelssohn's last string quartet, a memorial to his sister who had died a few monthly earlier. He would die only a few months after completing the piece, like his sister from a stroke. It received a beautiful performance, with poised and affectionate expression.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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