After a delayed start (details below), Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s music director Barry Shiffman seemed a bit nonplussed when introducing the Escher [String] Quartet. This was to be a “hard-core string quartet program”—no theatrics, no agendas, no special pleading, just a solid program of some of the finest repertoire your ticket money can buy. Such an old-school approach, coming as a breath of fresh air in these topsy-turvy times, was nearly as apparent visually as on paper. A boy band in dark suits, white shirts, and ties just came in, nodded acknowledgment to the applause, sat down and played.
At the Shalin Liu Performance Center on Saturday afternoon, awash in rain such that the dull harbor out the great stage-rear window evoked a scene from Peter Grimes, they played brilliantly curated repertoire from three centuries, beginning with Mozart’s Quartet (no. 22) in B-flat major, K. 589 (1789), one of his late “Prussian” set and not, we think, among his most frequently performed. That it gave him much trouble in the writing, and that it was at least in part intended as a job application with the Prussian royal house (a second whiff for that family, who also passed on J.S. Bach after receiving the Brandenburg Concertos), is well known. The compositional problems arose in part from Mozart’s desire to be daringly original, and the sweat of his brow bore excellent fruit in the remarkable (even for Mozart) chromatic, textural and contrapuntal complexity below the quartet’s generally genial surface.
Like all the Prussian quartets, this one tilts in the direction of the cello, which was King Friedrich Wilhelm II’s instrument, and Escher’s cellist Brook Speltz did not disappoint in his deft virtuosity and articulation in the first movement and rich lyricism in the second, though we would have forgiven him for being a bit more forward. In general we found the Eschers’ reading straightforward and elegant but definitely within the box, with the minuet and finale picking up in sprightliness, with the latter notably springier.
The incident alluded to above that resulted in a slight delay in starting the concert was a fire alarm that required the hall to be emptied to permit Fire Department inspection, with a consequent audience jam-up in the rain. Rumors began to fly concerning the cause of the alarm, which may have been confirmed by a remark from second violinist Brendan Speltz (the foursome’s most recent member, having joined in 2019) winkingly directed to his “esteamed (as in jacket steamer set off the bells and sirens)” brother Brook. But the next entry, the Bartók String Quartet No. 4 in C Major, BB95 (1928), really got steaming at points. The reference to C major, as any listener will attest, is purely nominal, and even within the attenuated 20th-century ideas of tonality, it’s a bit misleading, since the notion of major and minor is pretty well erased in favor of various types of modality, chromaticism, and octatonic scales, to say nothing of the free dissonance so characteristic of Bartók’s music from the 1920s. Moreover, the key, such as it was, is best understood as a goal rather than a starting point.
The other thing most remarked about the Fourth Quartet is its origination of the construction one now associates with Bartók, the five-movement arch, with the first and fifth movements closely related and the second and fourth likewise, leaving the central slow movement as a standalone apex. Think of the Concerto for Orchestra to see how this played out in Bartók’s later oeuvre. Another literally striking feature of the fourth was the composer’s experimentation with extended string techniques, notably what is now referred to as the “Bartók pizzicato,” where the string snaps back onto the fingerboard, but also with inventive use of harmonics and glissando slides between widely separated notes. None of this would be worth more than a footnote, however, if the piece were anything less than riveting and communicative music, which is probably why ensembles brave its technical difficulties to make it probably the most-performed of the composer’s six quartets.
We were well pleased with the Eschers’ performance, though in a few places we wished it were less decorous; the intent seemed to be to save the really high energy, excepting the first movement stretto, for the finale. We were especially happy with their handling of dynamics, and in particular the wonderful pianissimos in the muted second movement scherzo, which, marked prestissimo, went so fast that it became all about texture rather than notes. The central slow movement is often called a typical Bartókian night music, but once the cello’s haunting opening aria, beautifully played by Brook Speltz, concludes, some of the figuration of the upper strings, and in harmonics by the viola (Pierre Lapointe), got us thinking less of starry expanses than of crepuscular mosquito attacks. The all-pizzicato second scherzo was as virtuosic and finely wrought as it comes, while the manic barn dance of the finale came with thrusting rhythms, great power and authority.
The Eschers closed with another less-often-performed masterpiece by a well-known composer, the String Quartet No. 11 in C Major, op. 61 (1881) by Antonín Dvořák. It preceded No. 12, the unbearably famous and overplayed “American,” by a dozen years. Like the Mozart No. 22, this one was a bit of a headache to complete, also because its composer needed to get it exactly right. The story, partly recounted HERE, hints at the pressure; this program note fills in some more blanks, with the fact that Brahms had something to do with the commission adding a few more psi. The result was, as with the Mozart, well worth the effort. Contrary to what a lot of writers say about the piece, it has lots of Czech flavor, most obviously in the finale, but even in the first movement, where Dvořák imparts his distinctive harmonic practices, derived from Czech folk music (second only to Schubert, Dvořák extracted maximum emotional mileage from a quick transition from major to minor), which also include some magnificent chord changes. There are also wonderful technical quirks, for example having the second subject not in the expected G but instead in E-flat (with a startlingly chromatic accompaniment the first time around), only getting around to G for the codetta theme. The principal theme, incidentally, strongly resembles Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus “conq’ring hero” one hears so much of at Easter—could this have been deliberate (as they say on YouTube, if you know please drop a comment)? One thing Dvořák was not noted for, as best we recollect, was planting jokes in his music. There is an exposition repeat in the score, which some performers take; we don’t think the Eschers did, but might be wrong about that: it’s a fairly concise exposition, and we welcomed the apparent departure from the prolixity that sometimes plagues Dvořák. The players imparted a warm Gemütlichkeit to the sound while punching out the sharp dotted rhythms in the lines.
The slow movement is a dreamy song with occasionally abandoned threads that trail off and intermix with passionate outbursts, in a complex metrical mix of 4/4 and 12/8. The scherzo was apparently adapted from an earlier work that Dvořák styled a Polonaise, but the rhythm is much more like a mazurka to these ears. The quartet took it with somewhat scaled-back bounce, but the contrasting duple meter trio got lots of quick-change pathos. The finale, as noted, has a classically Dvořákian Czech-infused folklike melody (maybe even a real one?), which the foursome handled tightly, but with great personality, especially from first violinist Adam Barnett-Hart.
Earlier on we mentioned that this program seemed brilliantly curated, and here’s why: apart from the obvious mix of periods (for some reason, in studying the BMInt archive of reviews, it seems that Dvořák 11 is frequently paired with a Mozart Prussian quartet, and the Mozart 22 is frequently paired with Bartók 4), each of these particular works prominently features melodic materials that stress a pattern of a long and a double-short. We’ll give the Eschers credit and praise for that musical linkage in three otherwise quite disparate compositions.
Enthusiastic response from the full house earned an encore, which Lapointe said we’d probably recognize, the Assez Vif- Tres Rythme from the Ravel string quartet, done with grace and elegance. Most in the house seemed to recognize it right away, though we discovered later that some audience members were actually using a phone app that will identify music for you, sigh.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.