EMERSON STRING QUARTET, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Thursday.

The Emerson String Quartet (violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker — who alternate the first-chair position — violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel) is certainly one of the elite among American quartets today, if not in the world.

The group's impeccable technique and remarkable ensemble playing have been honed by more than a quarter of a century of performing together. Add to that its matchless musicality and you have a quartet consisting of craftsmen of the highest order.

The Emerson paid a return visit to Salt Lake City Thursday after an absence of several years. The large audience in Libby Gardner Concert Hall was witness to a profound performance that culminated in Shostakovich's emotionally draining Quartet No. 3 in F major, op. 73.

The only work on the second half of the concert, the Shostakovich Third shows the Russian composer at the height of his creative genius. Shostakovich was an extraordinary musical parodist, who found countless ways to satirize the accepted compositional practices of Stalinist Russia. The grotesque scherzos and unassuming tunes that abound in his music hide much more than they reveal.

The work is overwhelmingly light and carefree on the surface, but underneath the music seethes with an intensity that finally bubbles over in the searing emotions and pathos of the finale.

The Emerson gave a stellar performance of the Third. The musicians captured the multifaceted character of the work with their dynamic reading. Their playing was luminous and skillfully brought out the lyricism that pervades the music.

The first half of the concert opened with Joan Tower's "Incandescent." Written in 2003 for the Emerson, the one-movement work is intense, creating unremitting suspense through repeated phrases that are altered, sustained tones and intervals, and constant nervous motion.

Tower seemingly manages the impossible by creating riveting music out of nothing. She employs traditional means to create highly original music that is inventive to a high degree, making her one of the most fascinating composers working today.

The Emerson played "Incandescent" with conviction, capturing the dynamics of the 18-minute-long piece with a minimum of effort. It was a flawless performance that was driven and charged with high-voltage energy.

The other work in the first half was Beethoven's Quartet in E flat major, op. 74, "Harp." One of the composer's most congenial quartets, the "Harp" is full of lyrical beauty, eloquence and charm.

The Emerson played the work seamlessly.The exquisite Adagio was filled with a radiance that wonderfully captured the repose of the music.

In the middle of the stormy scherzo, the performance took an unexpected turn when a member of the audience fell ill and had to be helped out of the hall. After an ambulance had been called, and after a break of a few minutes, the foursome returned onstage and dove into the finale.

There was a brief encore — the chorale "Vor Deinem Thron steh' ich hiermit," the concluding movement from J.S. Bach's "The Art of Fugue," which the Emerson recently recorded.

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com