Last month the Escher String Quartet gave an outstanding performance across the Hudson River from Woodstock, at Bard College’s Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle. On Sunday, the Eschers performed a completely different program at Maverick Concerts and even brought a different member: second violinist Brendan Speltz, a temporary replacement for the injured Danbi Um. If I’d been ignorant that the ensemble had a substitute, I’m sure I would never have detected it.
Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, was my third live Haydn Quartet of the weekend. The excellent Aston Magna ensemble, an ad hoc group, had done lovely work with two Haydn Quartets on period instruments as part of a “Birth of the String Quartet” program on Friday [my review HERE]. The Eschers weren’t playing period instruments, but they still produced a modest enough sound. It was also uncommonly rich. Perhaps it was my seat (near stage left), or the acoustics of the Maverick Hall compared with Bard’s larger Olin Auditorium, but I found myself noticing more of an uncommon and very welcome emphasis on the lower string parts. They were more prominent than usual although not excessively so. That was fine; the sound of a viola makes me even happier than a good viola joke. I particularly appreciated the clarity of the Adagio, and the expressiveness throughout.
Many years ago, I wrote notes for a recording of the Haydn Op. 20 set, and I remember reading about how pleased Haydn was with himself after writing the finale, “Fuga a Quattro Soggetti.” It’s extremely ingenious, and I think he would have also been pleased to hear how well this performance delineated the musical lines.
Maverick is presenting all the string quartets Dmitri Shostakovich wrote during the 1960s during this season, as a sort of slantways celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. (Not to worry, there are only four of them.) The Eschers fired the first salvo with the String Quartet No. 10, in A-flat Major, Op. 118, from 1964. I particularly admire the way these performers can alter the size and quality of their sound to suit different compositions, and while the opening of the first movement occupied a world not too distant from Haydn, the dramatic second movement (“Allegretto furioso” indeed!) sounded almost like a full string orchestra. Along with the high drama, though, we got impressively sharp articulation in rapid passagework. This relatively concise work still manages to run the gamut of Shostakovich’s mature style, and memorably so in this outing.
Last week my esteemed editor on this site linked my Dvořák review to a 1928 recording of the first movement of the composer’s American Quartet. I hope he’ll do something similar this week for this week’s Smetena, not only because that’s what the Escher Quartet played to conclude its program, but also because I wonder if the ensemble had been listening to that revelatory recording. The Eschers didn’t adopt all the elements of authentic romantic style heard from the Bohemians, but there were numerous suggestions thereof, from the viola portamento heard in the opening theme to the irregular rhythm of the cello pizzicati in the third movement. From My Life, Smetana’s Quartet No. 1, in E Minor, is one of the masterpieces of the romantic string quartet literature. (And I’m fonder of Smetana’s No. 2 than Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt, who described it as “weird, and not in a good way.”) But the first, too, can certainly go flat if the performance isn’t sympathetic enough. The Escher String Quartet did it justice this day. The first movement was genuinely “appassionato.” The second had some appropriate freedom of tempo. The third was as fervent as you could ever want to hear. And when the finale arrived at that bone-chilling high harmonic note depicting the tinnitus which eventually led to the composer’s deafness, I felt a chill go through me. Bravo!