Tonight’s concert with the Emerson String Quartet at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival was a truly special event. After 34 years, the world famous, multiple Grammy-winning quartet has made its first personnel change. Tonight marked their very first concert with their new cellist Paul Watkins.

Emerson String Quartet with cellist Paul Watkins © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Emerson String Quartet with cellist Paul Watkins
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

A professional quartet such as this which spends the majority of any given year together on the road, in concert halls, airplanes and hotel rooms, forms a bond which goes far beyond musical – the group becomes a kind of family, in which each life event or personal problem is shared. An immense amount of trust is required to play such intimate music, and furthermore, each musician becomes accustomed to the specific tendencies of the other. The significance of this kind of event should not be underestimated.

So, did Paul Watkins prove himself this evening? The answer is a resounding yes. According to the musicians themselves, he was the one and only choice, there was no final audition round. This would have been obvious without explanation – Watkins managed to, in his first concert, adapt his sound to match the style and color of this ensemble which is so famous for their breathtaking consistency of tone and vibrato.

The program, Haydn, Bartók and Beethoven, had a little of everything which Emerson has become famous for: crystalline clarity in the Haydn, savage ferocity and virtuosity in the Bartók, and impassioned romanticism in the Beethoven. It was also a program very well suited to showcasing the cello.

Standing, save for Watkins, white of hair and dressed in white suits, the Emerson String Quartet began the concert with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20. They had a rustic sound, more heavy on the vibrato than other, “historically informed” interpretations, though with a clear awareness of Haydn’s intricate Classical forms. This is a good place to start: Haydn is known as an early champion of the string quartet and, much like the symphony, developed the medium into the form in which we know it today. The third movement stood out the most, with its downward-cascading theme, as if a lament, and this movement also featured a number of cello solos which required absolutely perfect intonation, which Watkins never failed to deliver. This performance was everything that a string quartet should be – an intelligent conversation between four distinct characters.

Bartók’s String Quartet no. 2 in G minor was next, and offered Emerson a chance to open up their sound and dig in to their instruments. Philip Setzer was the first violin in the first half of the concert – he above all played with the most abandon, throwing his bow over the strings without fear. Bartók loves the viola, however, and it was violist Lawrence Dutton who stood, out for a number of distinct and memorable moments throughout the work – Dutton has a rich, full tone which easily leaps high into the upper range. The second movement, which erupts with a wild tritone, was Bartók at his best. Gypsy-inspired, this movement was rife with difficult and sudden tempo and character shifts, extended techniques and impressive runs.

Violinist Eugene Drucker moved into first position for the second half, Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 no. 2. The quartet had produced two distinctive tones for the Haydn and the Bartók – now we were offered a third, and the warmest and richest of the evening. This is a work quite typical of Beethoven, with a quiet, furious little fugue, obsession over a repeating rhythm, sudden plunges into foreign keys and tendency toward unbridled romanticism, though it perhaps does not have the same formal concision of many of his later works.

Again, the second movement stood out as the best, with its stuttering, staccato rhythmic motive (which only Dutton played with a lilt), and was reminiscent of Haydn himself in its wit and unexpected shifts in character and texture. I’m not sure if clever programming was the reason, but by this point in the program Paul Watkins’ performance was so incredible that I became convinced that in his first concert with Emerson he had already become their strongest musician. His bow control would make a ballet dancer envious, his intonation never faltered for a microsecond, and he was able to adapt his tone to match the other musicians as if he’d been playing alongside David Finckel all these years. I think it’s safe to say that the Emerson String Quartet made the right choice, and can now look forward to many more years of world-class music making.

*****