The Emerson String Quartet emphasized the sweet-sorrow aspect of parting Friday evening at the Barns at Wolf Trap, performing two of Beethoven’s most expressive quartets to launch its farewell tour, nearly 47 years after the famed ensemble’s formation at Juilliard.

Wolf Trap made a fitting setting for this send-off. Its where the Emerson served as artistic advisers for Chamber Music at the Barns in the 2016-17 season; and where in 2018 it presented its collaborative theatrical work, “Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy.”

Moreover, the space honors the intimate dialogues that have long been a calling card of this quartet. The Barns is one of the most acoustically pleasant venues I’ve experienced — everything sounds crisp, close and controlled. This unfortunately extended to the cartoonish text-notification whoop! that disrupted the finale of Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor” (for shame, dude in row G!) and the chorus of suppressed coughs released like a flock of wheezy doves between movements (great job, everyone else!).

Washington was also a natural choice to kick off this long goodbye: The Emerson has enjoyed a sustained love affair with listeners in the area, not least in the pages of The Washington Post.

In 1984, Louis J. Wasser noted “there is not a weak player in the quartet, so no artistic energy was lost in compensation.” Joan Reinthaler followed up the next year: “Theirs is a level of cooperation and adjustment, teamwork and selflessness that is a byproduct of devotion to the music.” Charles McCardle sang in 1988 that Emersonian renditions of Bartók “surely qualified as definitive.” And Mark Carrington left a concert in 1996 with “the profound impression that this is one of the preeminent chamber ensembles of our time.”

The quartet parted ways with cellist David Finckel in 2013 and welcomed his replacement, Paul Watkins. My next-desk neighbor Philip Kennicott observed at the time that the Emerson “are to the string quartet literature what the white-box gallery is to art: objective, unsentimental, untroubled by neuroses or strange tics of interpretation, and always transparently in service to the music.”

This high praise still holds ten years down the road. The quartet purrs like a well-maintained engine. Watkins, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton have between them something more than rapport, and together they demonstrate an engagement with the music that reaches beyond respect.

Theirs is a devotional ease — a back-of-hand familiarity that teeters on the unconscious, especially evident when in the throes of Beethoven. And while I can’t significantly veer from the arc of praise the Emerson has earned over the years, I detected at the Wolf Trap concert what my predecessor Anne Midgette picked up on in 2015: frequent issues with intonation, and a “gluey” quality here and there when the goings got tough.

But these imperfections amounted to a pesky humanity Friday, only occasionally intruding on the perfect.

The program paired Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor” (Op. 59, No. 2) — one of three quartets composed between 1806 and 1808 for Count Andreas Razumovsky — with his late-period “String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major” (Op. 130) of 1826, a six-movement work that occasionally, as on Friday, employs the oft-standalone “Grosse Fuge” (Op. 133) as its finale.

The two quartets make canny bookends for an ensemble nearing the end of its career. No. 8 showcases Beethoven at the peak of his powers, residual heat still rising from the Eroica (1803), ideas overflowing into stretches of symphonic complexity. In No. 13, you hear an artist who cannot — a Beethoven struggling against the darkness of deafness near the end of his life, compressing and conjoining ideas with a burning urgency, a dying light and a raging.

And in the Emerson’s handling of each, you could hear a negotiation between precision and passion. They brought dynamic agility to the opening allegro of No. 8 — Watkins’s cello sneaking up and pouncing into fizzy bursts of violin. The mournful molto adagio seemed to stretch time as the ensemble coalesced into rich, golden chords, with Setzer tracing graceful lines around them.

It’s in the allegretto third movement that No. 8’s Russian colors begin to show. The movement was most arresting for the ensemble’s energy, which lent sufficient drama to the many musical gasps Beethoven inserts to regain the scherzo’s composure. And the finale was extra-presto, leaping to busy life between the players, who passed around hot-potato fragments of melody before making a locomotive charge to the finish.

In the “String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major” (Op. 130), all of this ingenuity feels italicized — charged with import and abandon. Here and there, the performance was marred by off notes and slight bottlenecks as the Emerson players struggled to meet Beethoven’s stringent demands.

But Drucker and Watkins sustained marvelous tension in the opening adagio movement, highlighting harmonic shifts toward the end that signal the waking Romanticism in Beethoven’s later years. They brought unexpected sensitivity to the punchy presto of the second movement. The third and fourth were a showcase of bustling internal mechanics — especially the andante con moto third, in which the violins seem eager to identify as woodwinds. Drucker brought exquisite lyricism to the quartet’s most recognizable fifth movement Cavatina. The music felt drawn from a shared breath.

The “Grosse Fuge” predictably offered the true test of Emersonian mettle. It’s a sharp-clawed, hard-edge, uncompromising 16 minutes, its fugal form an insufficient cage for Beethoven’s beast. One of its hairpin turns had Drucker and Setzer briefly stepping on each other’s toes, and some of its more aggressively deconstructive stretches turned my knuckles whiter than usual.

It’s a terrifying piece of music — not least of all because its beauty feels threatened by its own storm. (Does one perform the “Fuge” or survive it?)

But perhaps because they know it so well, or because we know them so well, the Emerson did to the “Fuge” what they’ve long done to the literature of the string quartet — turning old favorites into fresh starting points, and knowing the difference between the end and the now.


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