Emerson String Quartet keeps it going at Williams concert

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> Ah, the hazards of concert life.

The Emerson String Quartet was only a minute into Shostakovich's Quartet No. 10 Monday night when it had to stop. A whistling hearing aid in the audience was disrupting pitch. (Not in Shostakovich's key of A-flat, violinist Philip Setzer joked from the stage.) Then in the second movement cellist Paul Watkins broke a string. Time out for backstage repairs.

In the end, the interruptions proved minor. The last three movements provided an immersion into Shostakovich's world of lamentation, savagery, grinding dissonances and winding melody. In the long finale, gaiety is the goal but sadness is the conclusion.

On the verge of its 40th-anniversary season, the Emerson came to Williams College as an Old Master among American string quartets. Younger quartets abound, many of them, such as the Dover, brilliant in execution and comprehension. The Emerson, with founding violinists Eugene Drucker and Setzer still on board and alternating first and second positions, can still show them how. (Violist Lawrence Dutton rounds out the ensemble.)

The free concert took place before a large audience in Williams' Chapin Hall, where the newly reverberant acoustics — so favorable to the Berkshire Symphony — proved a little too bright and distant for chamber music. Even with a baffle behind the players, the Emerson's sound lacked its usual warmth and depth.

The program opened with early Beethoven, the Quartet Opus 18, No. 6. Despite vigor of attack, the performance sounded by rote and not always in tune. Beethoven's elements of surprise didn't surprise. Perhaps the players were still getting acquainted with the acoustics. Or the whistling hearing aid.

Brahms' three string quartets are performed so often it's easy to forget that in composing them he had to find new wine for an old bottle. The Emerson closed with the last of the three, Opus 51, No. 2, making it seem not a path-breaking act, but an old friend.

As with his symphonies, Brahms felt the shadow of Beethoven, with his 16 quartets, behind him when, in his 40s, he turned to the form of the string quartet. Brahms claimed to have destroyed 30 attempts before committing his three to publication.

His solution to the Beethoven ghost was a kind of continuous thematic development within the classical form. It was striking to hear the continuous flow after the regularity of Beethoven's design in his early work.

It all sounded perfectly natural and passionately romantic in the Emerson's warm-hearted performance. The slow movement was a love song. The finale was a burst of gaiety such as Shostakovich sought but couldn't attain.


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