It has been almost 20 years since the Emerson Quartet was in Australia, and Musica Viva audiences have been on tenterhooks for this nine-concert comeback tour by the “finest string quartet to come out of America” with their swag of Grammy and Gramophone Awards.

Emerson String Quartet. Photo © Lisa Mazzucco

Judging by the brace of opening Sydney concerts it’s safe to assume that all chamber music lovers will agree that it has been well worth the wait.

The New York-based group has attained legendary status over the 43 years it has been going and during that time it has only had one change of personnel, with Welshman Paul Watkins replacing founding cellist David Finckel in 2013. Lead violin duties are shared between Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer with the redoubtable Lawrence Dutton on viola.

“There’s a sort of perfection about the four voices of the string quartet,” Drucker says. “There’s a balance which can be easily stretched to emphasise one instrument, or to have the perfect blend of the four.”

The Emersons embody this ideal. And with four decades of performing together there is a rich history. “In our [score] parts we can see almost an archaeological record of the bowings we’ve done and also the metronome indications we are trying to follow,” Drucker says.

For the tour – which takes in Newcastle and all the state capital cities – they are presenting two programs with works by Haydn, Mozart, Dvořák, Bartók and Beethoven.

This concert opened with Mozart’s No 21, K575, part of the Prussian set written for Frederick William II, a work that charms rather than scintillates, unlike the more popular Haydn set of four years before.

The Emersons, led by Drucker, set about this light and airy piece like four master jewellers working on a gem, teasing out the filigrees while letting the light shine through.

Their silken-smooth tone captured the nuances gloriously, Drucker and Setzer bespectacled and leaning into the phrases, Watkins and Dutton more animated.

But even for a seasoned team small things can go slightly awry. Dutton came onstage only to realise he hadn’t brought his score. Watkins covered the pause and immediately got the audience onside by shouting out: “Congratulations on winning the Ashes!”

If the Mozart was all refinement and elegance, Dvořák’s String Quartet No 10, the Slavonic, smacked of folk dances and Czech comfort food with a sizeable dash of paprika. Here Setzer took over the first violin role.

Dvořák composed the piece off the back of the success of his orchestral Slavonic Dances and the second movement features his trademark Dumka passages with a yearning slow section leading into a fast furiant dance tune.

Dutton’s strummed viola set up the serenade feel for the red-blooded Romanza movement that followed before the infectious finale with the rhythm of a Czech skipping dance.

When the Emersons was last here, it was embarking on its recorded survey of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets and they chose one of these – the symphonic and harrowing Fifth, to close the concert.

Drucker, back in the lead chair, introduced the work and said it reminded him of Mahler’s comment on the opening of his fourth symphony in which “the sky is so blue that you know it cannot last”.

The foursome brought out all the anger, stabbing grief and occasional overwhelming melodic beauty of this three-movement masterpiece, played straight through, which Shostakovich withheld from performance until after Stalin’s death one year later in 1953.

Drucker said that in the six years since he’d joined the quartet Watkins had had to learn 13 of the 15 quartets. “He deserves your applause – he’s a very quick student!”

If you can, go and see the Emerson Quartet. Another chance may not come around for another 20 years.

The Emerson String Quartet tour nationally for Musica Viva until September 21