No matter what wonders the digital world offers, none will ever surpass a live musical concert with players on stage before an audience. At Vassar’s Skinner Hall on Sunday afternoon the Escher String Quartet, which has received recent acclaim from the Emerson Quartet and Itzhak Perlman, performed. The quartet is named after the Dutch graphic artist, famous for interplay of strong lines that resolve in balanced gestalt.
Their first choice was Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 589, which was completed in June, 1790, in the wake of Emperor Joseph’s February death when Mozart was depressed and desperate for money. He imagined he might acquire a patron at the Prussian court by dedicating some quartets to nobles, but found no sponsors. Frustrated, he attempted to publicize this quartet and its previously composed companion with a small home concert that he led, which turned out to be a dead end. Having abandoned these quartets, they were published a few weeks after his death “for the price of a sandwich,” as one biographer has described the situation.
Of the three quartets in the abandoned series of six, K. 589 remains the most played and recorded, yet it conveys a troubled and turbulent sensibility few associate with witty Mozart. In the opening Allegro, lead violinist Adam Barnett-Hart captured a swelling sweetness that subsequent movements dispensed with, as melancholy surged to the fore, yet I did not feel the quartet articulated a unified interpretation.
They were more successful with Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17 which was written during World War I. While the opening Moderato exudes a bankrupt cheer with languid romance, the Allegro arrives with the shock of a dominant dissonant interval of the tritone accompanied by satiric pizzicato sniping: romanticism has pivoted to angry modernism. Bartók’s menacing drone was the first description of war atrocities in chamber music. The concluding Lento remains meditative, brooding, uncertain, wary of the war’s forthcoming results. Brook Speltz on cello was especially eloquent on cello during the second movement, while Pierre Lapointe on viola excelled with pizzicato, which remains a feature of Bartók’s style that is often misunderstood or poorly executed. As second violinist, Aaron Boyd stood out with firm riposte rather than the diffident support so often found in second violinists.
Vassar pianist Todd Crow then joined the quartet for Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81. Crow empowered the performance with a touch of the old master sure of his tempo, nuance of keyboard pressure, architecture of the music. This notoriously mercurial composition needs to run like a wayward river and Crow endowed the performance with effortless naturalism that conjured wonder. The flickering nostalgic moods of the second movement (Dumka) resemble the sun sparkling on a melancholy stream. In the faster third movement violins share the spotlight with the piano as they construct a pleasing pastoral scene, yet the viola and cello rise to compete with the exalted piano in the concluding fourth movement fugato which attains inexplicable, climatic intoxication that only great music superbly played achieves.
Crow had guided these young dedicated musicians into deeper performance, bringing their considerable talent up to his level. The audience of nearly 400 insisted on three gracious bows. A video of the Escher String Quartet playing Schubert appears below.