One of the most enviable pleasures of living in a big city is the opportunity to hear the never-ending parade of distinguished string quartets that perform here. Just under 10 years old, the Emerson Quartet holds residencies at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian Institute and the Aspen Festival, and if the program Sunday at the Wadsworth Theater is reliable evidence, the ensemble's stature should continue to rise.
Technicians of the highest order, violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel brought unusual clarity to their performances. In Charles Ives' densely contrapuntal Quartet No. 2, all of the thematic material emerged distinctly and convincingly. The players successfully evoked the work's idiosyncratic humor--often puckishly sarcastic--with unflinching earnestness, and captured its capricious changes of mood and style instantaneously. But never did they lose sight of the big picture, and in the serious finale, "The Call of the Mountains," an introspective, single-minded sense of purpose governed their playing.
This sense of purpose also shaped the group's reading of Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat, Opus 130 (with the "Grosse Fuge," Opus 133). The players generated a remarkable level of energy, manifest, for example, in the electricity of the Presto, and the fire of the Fugue. They may not yet have the sonic refinement of the cream of today's quartets, but they already have the intensity and mettle.