in: Reviews

July 1, 2016

Escher Quartet Proves Itself at Maverick

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Escher String Quartet (Sophie Zhai photo)

Escher String Quartet (Sophie Zhai photo)

It was as high-profile an event as you can have in such a low-profile town: the opening of the 101st season of the Maverick Concerts series in Woodstock on Sunday, June 26th. This season is highly unusual in the context of the series, featuring at least one 20th  or 21st century work in every classical concert of the summer. The Eschers got it off to a rousing start.

This ensemble’s approach to Beethoven’s String Quartet No 1, in F, Op. 18, No. 1, seemed quite unusual to me. Most of the time we hear this piece interpreted as if it might have been a late composition by Beethoven’s teacher Haydn. Within moments, though, I found myself thinking of a couple of pianists I’ve known, Vladimir Feltsman and the late Jacob Lateiner, who liked to play Beethoven’s First Piano Sonata with the same range and intensity as the late sonatas. (A favorite program of Jacob’s began with Op. 2 No. 1 followed by Op. 111.) Rather than regarding Beethoven’s “periods” as showing drastic development, this approach treats the composer’s work as a whole, without radical differences between the music of his early maturity and his last music.

The work of the Escher Quartet was so clear, so cleanly executed, that you could have taken dictation from it, including the dynamic markings. This ensemble knows what sforzando really means–an accent which carries at least a bit of shock value. The powerful, full-bodied sound in which these musicians cloaked early Beethoven imbued the work with more seriousness and more importance than it usually gets, without every overstating the case. The naive directness of the second movement proved particularly effective, with a very wide dynamic range and great fervency.

Last season the Escher Quartet gave us Bartók’s First String Quartet very effectively. The central item on their new program was his Second Quartet. In the opening Moderato the ensemble played with great directness, stressing the melodious quality of the music which often grows out of dissonance. The peasant dance quality of the second movement came out vividly. And the dissonance dissolved into song consistently in the final Largo, which wound up as lyrical as the Beethoven slow movement. The ensemble is hoping to return to Maverick—a favorite venue, they told me—with another Bartók Quartet every summer until the cycle is complete.

All praise to the Escher Quartet for offering Dvořák but not the “American” Quartet. (Yes, it’s a great piece, but hardly the composer’s only great quartet.) Instead we got the magnificent Quartet No. 13, in G, Op. 106, the composer’s next-to-last work in this genre. (Op. 105 was actually written later.) This performance balanced precision with warmth and tightened the discursive quality of the music. The second movement Adagio had uncommon drama and very big sound. I could have danced to the Molto vivace Scherzo, if I could dance. And the very mellow sound of the Finale conveyed the composer’s big heart without the taking the slightest detour into sentimentality. Thoroughly satisfying on every level, this concert most promisingly began Maverick’s second century.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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