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Space, Frozen Emotion with Escher


Stature poured into Pickman Hall by way of the ever more acclaimed Escher String Quartet which pronounced a shapely Beethoven, sonic Webern, and stout Debussy. Longy School of Music Cambridge was almost too small to accommodate the foursome’s bigness and the sold-out crowd. This Wednesday evening encounter with Escher live was a first for most Boston concertgoers [though the foursome has played Boston twice before], and that is due to Celebrity Series of Boston’s Debut Series.

Referring to “silence in Schubert,” violinist Aaron Boyd, speaking on behalf of the quartet, wanted to remind us of the relevance, if not particular importance, of that aspect of music in our fast and noisy times. Overall, though, Escher brought forth unexpected power throughout most of its well-designed plan that included three works of various sizes. There was no encore.

Wanting much of the time was relaxed space around the quartet, the concept of chamber music often not inborn to their approach. Would a Jordan Hall setting have changed anything?

Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 127 (1825) by Ludwig van Beethoven was ear catchingly cinematic for a while. That composer’s unbending adventures with the variabilities of the human frame of mind and its fluctuations were born out compellingly in the Quartet’s take of the opening Maestoso – Allegro.

Here and elsewhere in Opus 127 Escher at times surpassed its finely idealized sculpting quests with discoveries of deeper meanings crafted by a humanist-leaning Beethoven. Tonal balance was reconciled when the first violin’s highest string, which was too bright, gave way to lower richer, rounded timbres.

This Beethoven interpretation stimulated considerable instrumental interest. How artists of their stature and accomplishment handled or tackled phrases, a consciousness of music making one might say. It seemed not to be the night for reaching that subliminal zone. Rare moments of intimacy in quieter passages messaged discernible tonal gorgeousness.

It was further suggested that we enjoy “frozen emotion” an entrée to Escher’s vision of Five Pieces for Quartet, Opus 5 (1909) by Anton Webern. Cold and unmoving theirs was not, and space, plenty of it, everywhere present. Charged with color contrasts of pizzicato, harmonics, mutes and more, the first piece shifted directions from unmissable catastrophes to caring submission, then ending with that expressionistic Webernian outcry.

The quartet sounded a very, very softly, slowly, (never fuzzy as from other quartets) spoken lament of the second movement that was of a most absorbing transparency and delicacy. Astonishing dynamics, real urgency, fear-packed emotion, suddenly, swiftly appeared by way of Escher. Then this quartet’s firm grip on Webern’s ghostly and ghastly emotions fully spun listeners into that composer’s abbreviated domain, no doubt, an unforgettable interior space tour.

After one round of applause, seated, readying for Debussy, Escher would be back on its feet to acknowledge a second round from an obviously pleased and exceedingly attentive audience.

Hard to believe—Webern enjoyed?

Escher String Quartet (Sophie Zhai photo)

How picture-perfect to follow with Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10 (1893) of Claude Debussy. Why the same communication that occurred with the Webern could only be glimpsed in the Debussy puzzled. Abundant stoutness permeated through the Frenchman’s textures, the level of decibels eventually wearing.

Happily, there was glowing exception. The Escher foursome propelled the second movement marked “rather fast and rhythmic” into an orbit where all grounding, coaching, building was suspended. In that movement they caught so vividly Debussyian esprit. Snappy as in pizzicato delivery and as in temperament was Escher’s rendering, a sweeping and heightened musical land.

Members of the New York based Escher String Quartet are Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violins, Pierre Lapointe viola, and Brook Speltz, cello.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).



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