One of the risks musical groups run by inviting guest soloists to their programs is that differences in approach may clash stylistically.
The stakes were particularly high when the youthful Emerson String Quartet appeared with patrician violinist Oscar Shumsky and firebrand pianist Menahem Pressler on Sunday at the Laguna Beach High School Auditorium as part of the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society series.
Ernest Chausson's relatively unfamiliar "Concert" in D for piano, violin and string quartet, however, proved commodious, sturdy and expansive enough to accommodate divergence in style.
Shumsky brought nobility, sensitivity, reticence and warmth to the prominent, concerto-like violin part (which may explain why he played standing while the string quartet sat).
Pressler injected vitality, rhythmic variety and a sense of drama. The string quartet, which inherited what amounted to lots of filler passages from the composer, also contributed expressive dialogue and airy phrasing.
The differences could be heard in sequence in the unfolding of the tender theme of the Sicilienne, or--in the fully concerted passages--as a blazing core with a cool, luminous top. A fine example was the flood tide ending.
In Faure's Sonata in A, however, Shumsky's restraint and Pressler's rapturous tumult did not make for an ideal rapport.
Pressler, it is true, could also caress fluently rippling lines and suggest wit and playfulness, and Shumsky could evoke hushed vulnerability, as well as tensely stretched lines. But between the two, there didn't seem to be a real dialogue.
In Debussy's Quartet in G minor, the Emersonians--violinist Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel--had only themselves to contend with, and here with one mind they inclined more toward impetuous drama than subtlety, delicacy or beauty of sound.
The pluses included vigor, commitment, polish, impressive ensemble work and even a welcome sense of earthiness. But count among the minuses a certain lack in structural ebb and flow and passages that sounded more abstract than expressive, even when the players traced a carefully conceptualized sequence of graded dynamics in the third movement.