Among the differing philosophies of string quartet playing, one attempts to preserve the individual personalities of the players in a harmonious ensemble. In another, players attempt to fuse into a single personality, a 16-stringed instrument. Sunday at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, the Escher String Quartet provided as convincing an exhibit of the second style as I’ve ever heard.
Schubert wrote his String Quartet in E-flat Major, D. 87, when he was 16. The composer was a remarkable composing prodigy, as we hear from some of his early songs, but at sixteen he was not capable of the large-scale structures and intense drama of instrumental works he wrote just a few years later. There are faint hints of Schubert’s dramatic impulses, heard mostly in the exposition of the first movement, but mostly it’s pleasant, rather placid music, although quite beautiful in its lyricism. The Escher Quartet’s take on that first movement sounded very much like a single instrument at work; that suited the intent of the music very well.
Maverick’s program incorrectly listed Schubert’s Adagio as the second movement, but the performers played the Scherzo second, where it belongs. Here I could have used a little more roughness to emphasize the rhythm (and to bring out the “braying” quality of the opening theme). But the Adagio was very beautiful. The finale shows the extent to which the young Schubert was influenced by Rossini. (This is even more apparent in some movements of the early symphonies.) You could easily transcribe this movement for orchestra and fool people into thinking it was a newly-discovered Rossini overture. The animated performance was just what it needed.
Whatever roughness I may have missed in Schubert came prominently forward in Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3. This is the most compressed and in some ways the most difficult of Bartók’s quartets, dissonant and atonal through much of its quarter-hour. While the Eschers maintained amazing precision in this music, they also displayed variety of tone including some very folk-like, almost unlovely sound. The audience greeted this fabulous playing with a stamping, yelling ovation.
A composer once said of Sibelius’s String Quartet, “Voces Intimae,” “It’s glorious. The sort of thing that produces a smile even in the presence of death.” That composer was Sibelius.
I am ready to acknowledge that my lack of appreciation for most of Sibelius’s music is my problem rather than his. There are enough enthusiastic Sibelians among my musical acquaintances to convince me of that. And there are a few of Sibelius’s works, especially the Violin Concerto and “En Saga,” which I esteem highly. For the most part, though, I have long had trouble finding enough to keep me interested in Sibelius’s music.
This unfortunate deficiency of mine was powerfully demonstrated during what I presume to have been a splendid performance. The players set the music forth with obvious dedication, lots of impulse, and their accustomed tonal sheen and variety. For this unfortunate listener, though, the first movement started out as a lot of pointless meandering and the quartet continued in similar vein throughout a half hour of tedium, one phrase after another strung together with filler and sequences. Sibelius’s “Adagio di Molto” had just enough similarity to the famous Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to remind me of how much more concentrated and convincing I find Mahler. Well, as I said, my problem. At least I’ve learned that my appreciation for Sibelius hasn’t improved any.