The Escher String Quartet, one of the leading young quartets making the rounds, teamed up on Friday with pianist Joyce Yang, a Cliburn silver medalist, in a thoroughly satisfying program of Russian music at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center.
The evening, a true dark and stormy if ever there were one—on driving up the surf in Lynn looked like a scene out of Peter Grimes—began with Yang in a selection of three Rachmaninoff preludes, in reverse chronological order beginning with Op. 32 No. 12 in G-sharp Minor. Yang gave its crystalline sonorities a beautifully voiced and well-balanced reading, offering many shades to its obsessive octave tremolos. Op. 23, No. 4, in D Major, was poetic with a Chopinesque delicacy, elegantly pedaled and dynamically shaped. Finally, she gave the ubiquitous Op. 3, No. 2 in C-sharp Minor a somewhat languorous take, with its famous outer section rather softer than one might hear elsewhere. She also brought out much of its Russian weirdness.
The Escher foursome (Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violins, Pierre Lapointe, viola, and Brook Speltz, cello) concluded the first part with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, op. 117, a relatively less-performed member of its august cohort. It definitely needs more hearings, because it’s a dilly of a piece, the first of what can be termed the “late” Shostakovich quartets (it dates from 1964). The story is that the composer wrote a new work for his quartet of quartet muses, the Beethoven Quartet, but was dissatisfied and destroyed it, instead coming up with both this one and its successor two years later. In five connected movements (also something of a rarity in Shostakovich), the first of which is an eerie and otherworldly moderato with mostly quiet dynamics and a principal theme that reaches outside its tonality for a quasi-bitonal effect. The second is the first of two adagios, and builds a keening intensity, with brilliant chord changes against a queasily chromatic melodic content, most of which is presented in a solo line for the first violin, eloquently rendered by Barnett-Hart. The third is a classically sardonic Shostakovich scherzo deploying some favorite Shostakovich tropes, including his signature two-short-one-long rhythmic motif (which he self-satirized in his Fifteenth Symphony as the galloping theme from William Tell). The Eschers effectively varied the articulations of the repeating materials in the “A” section before the mad trio, with its many glisses and harmonics. The second adagio pits an obsessive descending minor second motif against mournful chords, punctuated with fierce chordal pizzicati first in the second violin and then in viola (kudos to Boyd and Lapointe). All pandemonium breaks out in the finale, the longest movement by far, in which the minor-second and most of the other motifs in the work, along with a very Russian-sounding theme, jostle for attention amid complex counterpoint. The lunatic intensity is wild but unsettling, and was stunningly realized at a particularly rapid clip by the Eschers, notably by Speltz, who excelled in the pizzicato chords and his many other prominent passages.
Piano and quartet combined in the closer, Shostakovich’s Quintet in G Minor, op. 57—popular as his ninth quartet is obscure. Its story is also colorful, in that Shostakovich claimed to have written it for the express purpose of having something he could play with the Beethoven Quartet on tour, so he could get out of Dodge occasionally—a ploy that succeeded). Pianists love it and many greats have performed and recorded it; heck, even Condoleezza Rice has played it. The first two movements are a Bachian prelude and fugue, precursors to the monumental set Shostakovich wrote for piano as op. 87; but less noted by commentators is that the slow fourth movement Intermezzo also follows a Bach model, this an aria, complete with walking bass. The opening prelude was given sober gravitas, though at a fairly lively tempo, though the movement’s affect isn’t really quite as anguished as this interpretation would have it. The fugue is a signature Shostakovich hybrid with sonata form, and to point this up the piano doesn’t enter until the development section; it achieves fine cumulative effect by staging entries at different scale degrees, a trick he repeated in the first fugue of op. 87. The third movement is a bumptious and frenetic scherzo that, while brilliantly executed, did not have to be treated quite as sharply as the equivalent movement of the ninth quartet. The ensemble’s take on the Intermezzo was sweet, rising finely to a sublime intensity before retreating. The finale is one of Shostakovich’s most genial movements, full of jokes like the dippy second theme that confounds toe-tappers by throwing in an extra beat in one measure. Another is the delicious soft ending. Minor esthetic quibbles aside, this was one of the best performances of this quintet we can remember.
Thinking perhaps that the soft landing mightn’t leave the audience in a sufficiently breathless mood, the ensemble repeated the scherzo as an encore, which certainly did the job.