Distinguished artists the likes of flutist Carol Wincenc and the Escher Quartet should earn high marks for solid performances of Mozart, Schubert, and a recent work by Yuko Uebayash. But after the concert at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the second of this summer, and one of many over the years, I began to wonder if the aural properties are equal to the stunning visuals of Shalin Liu Performance Center.
There might, however, be another possibility for what I have been hearing, and once again experienced Sunday afternoon. An otherwise high-level effort, the final concert of Rockport’s regular season was marred by what might be due to the artists not completely connecting with and, perhaps, understanding the hall.
Thinking of the introductory remarks of Artistic Director David Deveau, who pronounced the Escher Quartet as being in the top rank of those younger quartets who are still in their 20s and 30s, one may also consider youth as a possible factor in delimiting the musical gestalt.
Happily, only the faintest of signs of such would come in the Mozart Quartet for flute and strings in C Major, K. 285b. It was Carol Wincenc (pronounced win-sense) pouring pure, reassuring breath into the Mozart. Wincenc, the winner of numerous prestigious awards and current faculty member of Julliard, staged the divertimento-like two-movement work appealingly as boutique, her styling always luxurious and fashionable.
The Escher Quartet players were there with her but with a bit of edge sprinkled in. Wincenc and Adam Barnett-Hart, first violin, together, put a little bling on the development section of the sonata-allegro opening movement. All played the six Andantino variations with swish.
Yuko Uebayashi’s (b. 1975) Misericordia for flute and strings (2013) could be—and was—described as fluff, here, not the Massachusetts-born Fluff. Putting it Carol Wincenc’s way, “I think of Uebayashi’s music as ‘Debussy and Ravel meet in Nippon.’” Written for and about Wincenc, Misericordia received its Massachusetts premiere.
Each of the ten movements, or “months,” reflected the textures in which the composer very heavily and smartly relied on. The third month, “Carol’s Lullaby,” appeared restless with thick strings. High string harmonics and flute whistling á la barcarolle fit the seventh month, “Lights of the Passing Barges.” Mostly non-modulating and very basically pulsed, this kind of writing stayed too long in the same places to hold much, if any real interest, though Wincenc and the Escher Quartet players gave Misericordia their all.
With Franz Schubert’s Quartet in G Major, D. 887 comes an opening with extraordinary suspense, mazes of gestures, tremolos and pizzicatos. There are crescendos and diminuendos you find in Pierre Boulez and other mid-20th-century composers. Drama unfolding at heights still surprising, if not shocking, is the stuff of the first two movements of this 40-minute-plus grand oeuvre. And to think that Schubert wrote his last quartet in the month of June in 1826 at age 31 is mind boggling. Schubert took from his predecessors phrase structures and harmonic progressions, carrying them into freer, sometimes dangerous tonal territories. He was to die the next year.
What a workout for any quartet, and Escher was certainly up to it. They are clearly an ensemble with a big voice and technical assurance: the tuning and the execution of every gesture bespoke perfection that only earnest time in the practice room can produce. The foursome adventured with Schubert expertly, though in this big work the big picture did not convincingly materialize until the Scherzo, allegro vivace. Transparency in the A section contrasting with a somewhat restful B, or “relief” section, brought me partially into the work, but not fully.
Before that, the first two extended movements that are complex and ambiguous fell short of surprising, never mind shocking. Suspense and inner workings of these Schubertian portents were largely ignored for outward contrast and immediacy of effect, perhaps even thrill seeking. As a result, brashness often dominated, and the feel of capriciousness of the final Allegro assai seemed a bit beyond reach. Repose and patient observance of the long arc were obviously things of the past.
While I marveled at much, I could not find the soul of Schubert amidst all of the relentless super-energy of this potentially superlative ensemble of artists: Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violins; Pierre Lapointe, viola; and since May, Brook Speltz, cello. Will the interpretive pendulum swing back to favor an inner look at repose and the big breath?