It may be hard to believe but the Emerson String Quartet, arguably the grandest and the most honored of the string quartets formed in the United States and still active today, is turning 40! As part of its anniversary season, the ensemble, a regular guest at the Tanglewood Festival, scheduled two recitals in the Ozawa Hall, the first of them proposing an outstanding traversal of Haydn’s six string quartets Op.76.

The Emersons are renowned for their high level consistency in playing the entire gamut of an extraordinary rich repertoire for string quartet. The same four instrumentalists have successfully played and recorded together for decades. The public got used to the two violinists – Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer – alternating chairs, to the cellist seated on a riser, surrounded by the three higher string players performing standing. When the long-time cellist David Finckel left in 2013, in order to pursue other educational and artistic interests, his decision came as a shock to the musical world. Fortunately Paul Watkins, his replacement, was able to adapt very fast to the requirements of an ensemble fabled for the interplay between its members. More, with his evident enthusiasm, Watkins brings a new glow to the Emersons' performances, evident from the very beginning of the Haydn cycle in Tanglewood. Listening to the cello introducing a triadic first theme in Op.76, no. 1 and initiating a dialogue between different pairings, one rapidly knew that it is going to be a special evening. 

In 1796, Beethoven dedicated his Op.2 piano sonatas to Joseph Haydn, his former teacher. Soon after, the older master started composing his Op.76 set of six quartets. We would like to perceive these works as some kind of reaction to Beethoven’s pursuit of new musical paths but that is probably not true. There are hints of later Beethoven in this music – from the three chords at the start of the G major quartet to the variations and fugue in the final, E flat major one – but the similarities can’t be more then fortuitous. After his second, tremendously successful, visit to London, Haydn felt emboldened to continue transforming the string quartet, a genre he didn’t invent but he radically changed. In Op.76, his last full cycle of quartets, he moved farther away from the sonata form than anyone else before him.

It was a long night at Tanglewood, the concert lasting three hours with two intermissions. It didn’t feel excessively long though because the music is so varied. The Emerson Quartet, with Eugene Drucker playing the first violin in the last three of the quartets and Philip Setzer in the first three, altered a bit the 1 to 6 order of play but it didn't make much of a difference.

Some of the segments are well known: the menuetto from the second, Quinten, quartet, a strict canon with the violins followed one bar later by the viola and cello, all playing with a sinister stiffness and deliberate lack of grace; the amazing opening of the Fourth (Sunrise) Quartet with Drucker’s first violin soaring above a continuo in an only apparently throwback to the “old style” string quartets with the first violin always dominant.

At the same time, the Emersons did illuminate other wonderful moments: the syncopations and rich harmony of the hymn like, Adagio sostenuto (First Quartet); the A major Trio emerging from surroundings tinged with sadness in the Third (Emperor) Quartet; the far ranging tonal explorations in the last quartet’s Fantasia.

Haydn has always had a penchant for musical jokes and the Op.76 quartets are no exception. The Emersons seemed to gain special pleasure from revealing these humorous moments to an admiring public. In the D major, the beginning of the Presto sounds like an ending. In the same quartet’s Trio, there is an odd grumbling motive in the cello line. In the E flat major quartet’s light-hearted Allegro spiritoso finale the single joyous theme is based on a simple scale with interesting rhythmic twists.

As always with Haydn’s music, it’s amazing how much he could achieve with so little.