Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet no. 3 in G major – with its closing farewell-to-life passacaglia inspired by music from his opera Death in Venice – was composed in 1976, during the composer’s final illness. That same year, the New York-based Emerson String Quartet was born, taking its name from American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. They chose the Britten to open their excellent Milton Court recital, setting the tone for an evening of stinging, white-hot intensity.

The Emerson String Quartet
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

In a shrewd bit of programming, the first half paired Britten’s Third Quartet with Shostakovich’s Eighth. The two composers were great friends, dedicating works – Britten’s The Prodigal Son and the Russian’s Fourteenth Symphony – to each other. Both quartets are extremely personal, quoting from the composers’ works. Britten was dying, Shostakovich was staring down the barrel, confronting suicidal thoughts, convinced that it would be his final work.

Over its distinguished 42-year history, the Emersons have only had seven personnel, with both violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, ever-present fixtures. Their latest addition, British cellist Paul Watkins, joined the group in 2013, replacing David Finckel. What is astonishing is the quartet’s intense sound, never fierce for its own sake, but with focussed projection so that even the quietest pizzicato strum registered at the back of the hall. They blend well, yet in Milton Court’s superb acoustic each individual timbre resonated clearly. As is their trademark, their violinists swapped leader duties, Setzer for the Britten, Drucker for the rest of the programme.

The Emersons’ unanimity of attack made for a vigorous, insistent Ostinato second movement, while they really dug into the spitting spiccatos of the Burlesque. It was the slower movements which left the longest impressions, especially the eerie first violin trilling in Solo, like a lone lark soaring above Snape’s reedbeds and the inexorable sadness of the La Serenissima final movement, etched in grey.

Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet is an even more intensely personal quartet, composed in war-torn Dresden as his own musical obituary. “When I die,” he told his close friend, Isaak Glikman, “it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself.” From the opening four notes, it is permeated by his D–S–C–H monogram, drawn from the German musical transliteration of his name (D–E flat–C–B in English notation). A sense of menace ran through the performance like a chill down the spine, nowhere more than that unsettling passage where the leader draws his bow over a long-held note while the others rap a three-note motif, reminding one how Shostakovich, fearing arrest by the KGB, would keep a packed suitcase in the corridor at night so he would not have disturbed his family when the knock at the door came. Pin-sharp co-ordination – often by the merest look or a snatched intake of breath – and the dark, knapped flint tone of Eugene Drucker’s first violin took the listener to an unsettling, uncompromising place.

After the interval we switched from the depths of Soviet despair to a work commissioned by the Russian ambassador to Vienna. Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 7 in F major was the first of his trio written for Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky, who asked the composer to include a Russian theme in each. After the claustrophobic intensity of the Britten and Shostakovich, the sunny opening theme came as balm to the ears and balm to the soul, the Emersons playfully passing themes back and forth. Beethoven’s gruff humour was evident in the Allegretto vivace – with rather a sharp dig in the ribs – and the tender Adagio still maintained inner tension. The Thème Russe finale, though, was wonderfully exuberant, ensuring listeners threw off turmoil to end the evening in high spirits.