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Emerson String Quartet in top form at Symphony Center

Any concert by the Emerson String Quartet is a worthy event simply because the group has long set the standard for excellence in its field.

But the Emerson’s stellar performance Wednesday at Symphony Center held special significance, because the concert was the group’s final appearance in Chicago with its original membership.

Last year, the quartet announced that founding cellist David Finckel will step down after the 2012-13 season and be replaced by Paul Watkins, a noted soloist, conductor and chamber musician.

As the recent movie, “A Late Quartet,” made vividly clear, keeping any such tight-knit foursome together is challenging, because of the inevitable clash of egos and musical opinions and all the outside problems of everyday life that can get in the way.

But the Emerson has not only managed to remain intact for 34 years, but it has also played at a remarkably high level and, from all appearances, its four members have stayed close, with this parting coming amicably.

In typical fashion, the Emerson presented a wonderfully atypical program, opting for three early 20th-century works all revolving around the theme of forbidden love. For added variety, two of the works called for guest artists.

Aside from pinpoint technique and seamless unity, this innately American quartet is renowned for its direct, intense, muscular style. All these qualities could be heard during this concert, starting with Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters” (1928).

Setting the stage for all that would follow in this tough, quirkily dissonant work was Emerson’s taut, in-the-moment take on the first movement, as the ensemble dexterously negotiated the music’s jolting shifts in mood, texture and tempo.

Next came Alban Berg’s serialist yet undeniably expressive “Lyric” Suite (1927), with the Emerson potently conveying its otherworldly feel and tightly coiled emotions. High points abounded, like the surreal beginning to the third movement, with the quartet using scratchy, squiggly strokes and taps on the strings and to create eerie musical effects.

The Emerson used a version of the sixth movement that contained a reconstruction of the original vocal line that Berg cut before the work’s premiere. Chicago-based mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley brought a suitably dark, firm sound and spare, unadorned phrasing to the song, managing to capture its elusive, uneasy poignancy.

Ending the evening was an impassioned, intoxicating take on the little-heard sextet version of Arnold Schoenberg’s post-romantic “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), Op. 4 (1902), that evocatively conveyed the work’s powerful emotional landscape.

Joining the quartet for this piece were two of its frequent collaborators ­­— violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr — and they fit right in, with no drop-off in the cohesion or level of playing.

Throughout the evening, Finckel was in top form, playing with his typically big, robust sound, flawless technique and keen, edge-of-the-seat responsiveness. This quintessential chamber musician has been a vital part of this ensemble, and it is difficult to see him go.

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.



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