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Emerson is still one of the best

Quartet’s program is both lifeless and emotionally charged

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EMERSON STRING QUARTET, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah, Thursday

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this season, the Emerson String Quartet has joined the stratified ranks of chamber ensembles such as the Guarneri, the Alban Berg, the Juilliard quartets and the Beaux Arts Trio — ensembles that have demonstrated an ability to survive despite personnel changes and a rash of younger groups coming on the scene.

These groups have survived so long simply because they are the best at what they do. They've explored their repertoire and have found their comfort zone. But what distinguishes these ensembles from others is that they've never been content to merely stay within the parameters of that zone. They're willing to re-interpret and consequently re-invent themselves artistically — and introduce new works into their repertoire, as well.

The Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City brought the Emerson (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; David Finckel, cello) back to Utah Thursday after a 2 1/2-year absence. And while the quartet's playing wasn't consistently of the highest order, it nevertheless showed that it's at the top of the game and without question one of the best.

The Emerson opened its program in the nearly sold out Libby Gardner Concert Hall with Haydn's Quartet in C major, op. 33, no. 3 ("The Bird"). And while the foursome captured the wit, charm and lyricism of the work, its playing was rather lifeless. It was also rather rough around the edges and lacked clean entrances. Its reading wasn't polished nor refined — traits that one has come to expect from the Emerson.

But the manner in which the foursome played the other two works on the first half more than adequately made up for the disappointments of the Haydn.

Carl Nielsen's emotionally charged and poignant "At the Bier of a Young Artist" was given a poetic and eloquently phrased reading that was subtle and delicately nuanced and captured the work's earnestness. This brief one-movement piece is on the Emerson's newest CD, "Intimate Voices," for which it recently won its eighth Grammy. (The album also includes Grieg's Quartet in G minor, op. 27, and Sibelius' Quartet in D minor, "Intimate Voices.") Wolfgang Rihm's Quartet No. 4 rounded out the first half of the concert. The 54-year-old composer wrote the work between 1979-81. Rihm's music is characterized by its density of sound, its complexity of structure and its intensity of expression. The Emerson navigated its way nimbly through the intricacies of the score and delivered a performance that was compellingly articulate and cleanly executed. The quartet's reading was intelligent, lucid and expressive.

Mendelssohn's Quartet in A major, op. 13, was the sole work on the second half. And while the Emerson's account wasn't flawless by any means, it still captured the work's youthful vibrancy, its drama and passion and its lyricism dynamically.

There was one encore — the scherzo movement from Beethoven's Quartet in F major, op. 135.

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com