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Friday, January 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emerson quartet earns its reputation

Seattle Times music critic

Concert review


The Emerson String Quartet: Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello; with pianist Craig Sheppard. Wednesday at Meany Theater, U W, Seattle.

It's nice to have one of the world's preeminent string quartets dropping by Meany Theater on a regular basis, and the Emerson String Quartet has developed an enthusiastic cadre of fans in Seattle over the past few years. On Wednesday evening, the Emerson — now in its 26th season — paid another visit, bringing along a remarkable program that included a collaboration with another Northwest fixture. Pianist Craig Sheppard, who only last week served up a stellar Beethoven solo program at Meany, joined the quartet for one of the most delectable romantic showpieces of the chamber repertoire: the Schumann Piano Quintet.

The Emerson's members now play standing, rather than seated (except for cellist David Finckel, who sits on a boxlike podium that places his sightlines closer to those of his colleagues). Oddly enough, this arrangement seemed to have mixed acoustic results on Wednesday evening. The cello, amplified by that resonating box on top of the stage, dominated the sound, and the other instruments sometimes seemed to be forcing their tone in order to compensate. Ironically, the best balances came in the Schumann, when everybody was seated, but when the addition of the piano should have made acoustical equality more elusive than ever.

Still, the playing was at an almost miraculously high level for most of the program, which opened with Smetana's String Quartet in E Minor ("From My Life") and went on to the thorny but exciting Janacek Sonata No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata" (named after a Tolstoy story). The Smetana, with Philip Setzer playing first violin, was strongly characterized, even rather rambunctious in the folk-influenced passages of the second movement. The Janacek, with Eugene Drucker taking over as first violin, was appropriately full of drama. The four instruments sometimes engaged in fiercely contested musical passages, and ended on an accord that was positively symphonic.

The best of the evening came in the Schumann, with Sheppard in excellent form and obviously on the same page as the quartet. Mercurial in its romanticism, this performance veered from the dulcet to the supercharged. The five players clearly took the deepest care to shape each passage, dovetailing the melodies so that each part fit together like the pieces of a Stradivarius. It was Schumann with all the best trimmings: great technique, great taste, finesse, ensemble sensitivity and panache.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com.

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