LENOX -- For two-thirds of its concert, the retooled Emerson String Quartet sounded like the good new, if not the good old, Emerson.
The estimable group returned to Tanglewood Wednesday night with Paul Watkins in the cellist’s chair occupied for 34 years by David Finckel, who has moved on to other chamber music interests. Watkins is a different kind of player -- quicker, lighter and perhaps a shade more extroverted than Finckel -- and the three veteran players adapted handily in Haydn’s Opus 20, No. 3, and Britten’s Quartet No. 3.
Beethoven’s "Razumovsky" No. 1 might have succeeded, too, but in the chilly night air, intonation went awry, especially for first violinist Eugene Drucker. You could hear a good performance trying to get out, but the sound didn’t blend and coordination was sometimes chancy. The players seemed to be pushing a tide rather than riding one.
Watkins, who is English, joined the 37-year-old ensemble last May as the first new member since Finckel. In his mid-40s, he’s a comparative youngster among colleagues -- violinists Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton -- all in the neighborhood of 60. He’s also active elsewhere a soloist and the music director of the English Chamber Orchestra.
To accommodate outside activities by all four members, the quartet is cutting back from 85 to 90 concerts a year to more like 65. The upper strings still stand to play, while the cellist still sits on a platform.
The new Emerson is apparently still a work in progress, and not just because of the "Razumovsky" difficulties, which could disappear on any given night. Watkins altered the playing in subtle ways -- all to the good in Haydn and Britten. The darting changes of course in Haydn were played up, leavening the bouts of earnestness, and even sturm und drang, with typical Haydn-like humor.
The Britten quartet, performed in commemoration of his centennial, is a valedictory work. Britten wrote it in 1975 as he was dying of heart failure. He died the next year, shortly before the premiere.
It’s dangerous to read biography into a composer’s work, but this angular, sometimes tortured quartet seems a harbinger. It’s not an easy work to hear, either emotionally or sonically, yet the vivid performance made it a gripping experience.
The five movements end with a passacaglia titled "La serenissima" ("the most serene") -- apparently a reference to so-named Venice, to which Britten was drawn in his recent opera, "Death in Venice," but perhaps also a meditation on death. Watkins’ throbbing cello eloquently kept up the passacaglia theme as the other strings intertwined slowly above in elegy.
The new Emerson returns to South Mountain in Pittsfield on Oct. 6. It will be interesting to hear how things progress.