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Escher String Quartet Radiates Joy

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 2nd, 2019

Adam Barnett-Hart, Danbi Um, Brook Speltz, Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt,  Pierre LaPointe 

The Hudson Valley Chamber Music Concert series opened its 69th season with the Escher String Quartet performing Mozart, Korngold, and Dvorak. Praised by The Emerson Quartet, Escher is now in the top tier of American string ensembles, playing with such nuanced unity that they have achieved hypnotic sound. The Escher Quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, famous for his vibrancy of lines within an aesthetic gestalt.

They opened at Bard College’s Olin Hall with Mozart’s String Quartet in F major, K. 590. This 1789 sonata was purportedly the third sonata Mozart composed for King Wilhelm II, yet it appears that he was never paid for this sonata or the first two. It concludes with a pleading inflection and abruptly ends with a question mark. This has led to much speculation among Mozart scholars and it may have been a conversational contract that was never honored.  Whatever the case, this engaging and playful sonata in the older concertante style opens with an austerity rarely voiced by Mozart, then plunges into Sicilian dance mode with delicate feeling. The following minuet and trio brim with austere economy and perhaps rebuke while the final movement features abrupt breaks as if hinting that Mozart was unwilling to finish the work, yet his generous humor prods him on as he buttresses the piece with counterpoint as if asking someone is this the kind of writing someone likes. A peculiar whimsicality inhabits this elusive composition; the Escher String Quartet masterfully explored the subtle subtexts of this unusual sonata where Adam Barnett-Hart on violin and Pierre LaPointe on viola were outstanding.

Wolfgang Korngold’s Third String Quartet (1945) was his last string quartet and his most notable one. Its sonorities flit between Schubert and Schoenberg as if these two were having a dinner conversation about the virtues of their differing styles, each replying to the other with elegant phrasing. This effective contrast expresses nostalgia for the world of sensitive Romance destroyed by the horrors of two world wars while acknowledging that the past cannot be reclaimed. This conversational pendulum between horrified austerity and lost lyricism accumulates haunting momentum. An amusing aspect of this quartet is that Korngold transforms many of his popular film score melodies into high art, thus giving a bravura display on how a sophisticated artist can work on more than one artistic level. Escher swung between Old Word lyric resonance into the troubling questions of the twentieth century as they were stitching a continuum while upholding the irony of continuity. Danbi Um on violin was especially eloquent in the second movement.   

Korngold’s oeuvre will be explored at Bard College with intense scrutiny at Bard’s upcoming Summerscape festival which is devoted to Korngold and his world this year. The festival will include a new production of the opera The Miracle of Heliane (1927) directed by Christian Räth with sets and costumes by Esther Bialas at Sosnoff Theater.

Antonín Dvořák’s 1892 String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97 is that rare double-viola quintet—not so surprising if one recalls that Dvořák played the viola. Its nickname “American” is well-earned, as the quintet is rooted in American folk motifs and the melody of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. This immigrant was thrilled to be an American in Spillville, Ohio, where the composer felt he had found a new home. The quintet intertwines the delight of being in his new home, even as he recollects and compares his own boyhood pleasures with those of the American children he sees frolicking. The Escher String Quartet, joined by rising star violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, delivered a radiant, confident, and serene joy that described supreme contentment. Cellist Brook Speltz supplied the memorable undercurrent of the work that seemed to plunge into the unconscious world of transcendental delight.

If you missed the delights of The Escher String Quartet or wish to hear them again, they will be playing Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák’s delicious Piano Quintet at Music Mountain on June 16 and at the Maverick Concert Series in Woodstock on July 7 with a program of Haydn, Shostakovich, and Smetana.