The Emersons go for drama at South Mountain

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PITTSFIELD - When last heard from in these parts, the Emerson String Quartet was at Tanglewood last summer playing in a dramatization of Shostakovich's troubles under Stalin, with the composer's woes mixed up with those of a tormented character out of Chekhov. Not convincing.

The Emerson, a venerable 41 years of age, closed South Mountain's 99th season Sunday afternoon with a program offering drama of a different sort. The repertoire was standard but the performances weren't. Quartets by Haydn, Schumann and Beethoven came with a charged intensity that looked deep within. More convincing.

Impressively, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have been members of the group since its founding, in 1976. Setzer appeared lame, which probably accounted for the violinists' and violist Lawrence Dutton's being seated for performance, rather than standing as has been their custom. (Cellist Paul Watkins has no choice but to sit.) Unlike the Dover quartet, which had to play amid smothering heat the week before, the Emerson enjoyed a crisp, clear autumn day. Both groups attracted capacity audiences.

Haydn's Opus 20, No. 2, provided a counterweight to Beethoven's late Opus 127, the afternoon's finale. One of the less-performed of Haydn's "Sun" set of quartets, No. 2 has high dramatic content in its own right. Without seeming to exaggerate, the players turned the piece into something dark and almost sinister. The adagio and minuet were segued, with slashing chords and questioning melody creating an unsettled effect. Even the lively finale retained an air of gravity.                    

Imaginative touches also illuminated Schumann's Opus 41, No. 3. The second movement, a stormy theme and variations with the theme emerging in the middle, had an air of fantasy characteristic of this romantic master. Also typical of Schumann, the adagio sang a song of contentment, with an undercurrent of restlessness coming from a two-note figure running beneath the melody.     

Nineteen years separate Beethoven's three "Razumovsky" quartets, the second and third of which were performed on the mountain earlier in the season, and his Opus 127, the season-ender. We're in late Beethoven here, a land of its own. From the earlier quartets' heights of heroism and optimism comes a descent into contemplation of the infinite. (Curiously, the "Razumovskys" and Opus 127 were alike commissioned by Russian royalty, Count Razumovsky and Prince Galitzin.)          

Setzer played first violin for the first half of the program. Taking over for the Beethoven, Drucker led a performance that reached for the stars but finally seemed labored, uncertain of itself and loose in ensemble. The adagio, which contains the heart of Beethoven's introspection, needs to be slow but was too deliberate here to sustain tension.                                                                                          

The Emerson's appearance completed a quick survey of four string quartets in South Mountain's five-concert season. Ensembles preceding the Emerson were the veteran Orion, the emerging Calidore and the young but well-established Dover. And what will the series do to celebrate its centenary next year?

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