The Emerson String Quartet brought its versatile virtuosity to the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall Sunday night in the first of several local appearances scheduled to occur annually over the next five years. The program of works by Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven sparkled with technical mastery, agreement in musical goals, intelligence and emotional depth.
Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel proved themselves stylistic chameleons during the first half of their concert, in which they shifted from transparent amiability and easy grace--for Haydn's Quartet in D, Opus 33, No.6--to an increasingly muscular reading of the Third Quartet, in F, by Shostakovich.
The latter work crowned the evening with a powerful performance that brandished brutal abandonment but held fast to exact synchrony of details in the process. In the Adagio, Dutton and Finckel alternated long, tortured solos with anguished command, and the violinists--Setzer took first chair before intermission, while Drucker assumed leadership after--echoed one another in a tragic pas de deux.
After the pairing of gentle wit and relentless Angst in the first two pieces, Beethoven's middle period Quartet in C seemed an appropriate mediator; the third Russian Quartet, dedicated to Count Razumovsky, offers plenty of opportunities to display strength and pyrotechnic authority, but much gracious beauty as well.
The players conveyed the structure, leaving no detail unexplored and carrying each idea to its logical conclusion. They took the final Allegro molto at breakneck speed, leaving one listener to wonder what a tempo marking of Presto might have elicited. Still, they managed to hang on to the music, with all its intricacies, and even to find some humor along the way.
Applause and foot stamping prompted six returns to accept the accolades, but only one encore, the Allegretto pizzicato from the Fourth Quartet by Bartok.