PITTSFIELD - Shostakovich gave his String Quartet No. 14 a prominent cello part in honor of the cellist of Russia's Beethoven String Quartet, which premiered all but the two of his 15 quartets.
It was fitting, then, that the Emerson String Quartet played the 1973 work at South Mountain Sunday afternoon to introduce the audience to the group's new cellist, Paul Watkins. The English newcomer, who replaced David Finckel in May, proved a fine addition to the ensemble. He was especially eloquent in the extended solos of Shostakovich's adagio movement.
Actually, the Berkshires got a first sample of Watkins' work when the Emerson came to Tanglewood in August. The program there began well but he, in turn, got a sample of Berkshire weather. It turned chilly for the program's finale, making a mess of intonation.
No such troubles marred the Emerson's playing as it closed the South Mountain season with works by Haydn, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn. In its 37th season, the ensemble may lack the technical zing of younger quartets. Its mastery is of a deeper kind.
In his mid-40s, Watkins is younger than his 60-ish partners, violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton. Possibly, his playing is more pinpoint in attack than Finckel's. Like his veteran predecessor, however, he seemed a perfect fit, blending in both tone and temperament, standing out when necessary, and providing a firm foun
dation for the upper strings.
Shostakovich's quartet stood in revealing contrast to his Piano Trio No. 2, which Setzer, Finckel and Wu Han performed on the Mountain a week before. (Correction: Contrary to last week's review, Finckel and Wu Han have never performed as a duo at South Mountain.)
The Trio No. 2 was composed in 1944, during wartime, and reflects the brutality of war and oppression. Finished 29 years later, two years before Shostakovich's death, the 14th quartet is the last in a series of four that he dedicated in turn to the original members of the Beethoven quartet.
The 14th retains the astringency and obsessiveness of Shostakovich's earlier works, but lyrical passages -- especially in the adagio -- create a more brooding, introspective mood. In the haunting performance, the suspended-time adagio seemed to echo Bach's "Art of Fugue" and Beethoven's C-sharp minor Quartet.
Despite momentary blemishes, the playing also illuminated Haydn's Opus 20, No. 3, and Mendelssohn's last quartet, Opus 80. The Haydn was full of well-calculated surprises, ranging from mid-sentence interruptions in the first movement to feints at tragedy in the finale.
The new Emerson plays in the style of the old, with the violinists switching off positions and, with the violist, standing to perform. As an encore, the andante from Mozart's K. 428 quartet provided balm after the self-inflicted wounds of Shostakovich and Mendelssohn.