The New York-based Escher String Quartet made an impressive debut in the Concord Chamber Music Series yesterday afternoon in the Concord Academy’s dry-but-articulate, steeply raked arena theater, producing a variety of sound signatures appropriately particular to each composer on the program of Beethoven, Janáček, and Brahms, earning quite an enthusiastic response. After hearing the ensemble in 2011 at Kneisel Hall in 2011 [reviewed HERE], I immediately inked them for the Harvard Musical Association’s private concerts, and I got to know the individuals through four subsequent bookings there. The players’ insatiable repertorial curiosity could hardly be discerned from the meat-and-potatoes programming yesterday, but their commitment to unanimous perfection of ensemble manifest itself from the start. The foursome’s insistence on a grueling rehearsal schedule had apparently led to changes in personnel over the years, but the brothers Speltz—Brendan on violin and Brook on cello—have seamlessly entered into the agreed-upon but spontaneously emotional mindset originated by first violinist Adam Barnett-Hart and violist Pierre Lapointe.
Beginning with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18 No. 6, the Eschers played the room with a direct immediacy and conversational articulation. Barnett-Hart coherently yielded his pinpoint focus whenever the spotlight widened to include his colleagues, as the foursome passionately argued within academic confines in the Allegro con brio first movement. In the major-minor alternations of the Adagio, the players savored a well-aged port wine of the deepest ruby, with tremendous complexity on the sonic palate, this movement being more sung than spoken. The cello seemed to be affirming and preaching a transcendental view of nature entirely appropriate to the composer and the Concord sages.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, though not much of a music-lover, recognized Beethoven’s importance. “The music of Beethoven,’’ he wrote, “is said by those who understand it, to labor with vaster conceptions and aspirations than music has attempted before.’’
The nuanced responses concluded in a plucked sigh. Then we joined the players for a delightfully galloping offbeat ride—herky-jerky in a refined conveyance, and somewhat ambivalent as to meter except as the Scherzo gave way to the Allegro Trio section. The complex La Melinconia: Adagio. Allegretto quasi allegro closer found the quartet alert to Beethoven’s genius for contrast and surprise. They began with a profound, almost unbearable restraint, slowly blooming into cosmic sphere, before frolicking in a Mozartian minuet of a mud-luscious spring. Throughout we enjoyed lived-in playing with swells and accents perfectly considered and artfully weighted. Immortal harmonies sang out from receptive silences, as spring anticipated winter. The race to the finish matched speed with smiling elegance.
Cellist Brook Speltz set up Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” with an account of cigarette smoke snorting from the f-holes in moments of anger and angst. The ensemble at once adopted a glitterier mien for the ‘startling chills and blinding heat’ which Speltz had suggested we would experience; the idealized but reluctant beloved, in the guise of Lapointe’s decidedly un-shy and gleamingly intense viola rejected the first violin’s love offerings. The other voices commented with slashing intensity made more vivid by momentary repose in Æolian harp quietude. The oceanic ice of trills in harmonics melt as the Andante – Con moto – Allegro resolves in a swelling fermata chord in doublestops. Adagio – Vivace, the oxymoronic designation of the second movement perfectly describes and alternation of penance and turbulence. After the yearning and deeply aspiring opening, cellist Brook Speltz issues his romantic mission statement, after which shrieking, and more relaxed anticipations of conjugal success continually vie in this cliffhanger movement. As pleasurable—and downright terrifying—mood swings continue apace in the Moderato – Andante – Adagio third movement. The Eschers could engage in a deceptively simple ring around the roses with a tragedian’s contrary and foreshadowing pessimism. The players boiled over in a witches’ brew before resignation gave way to near consolation or exhausted afterglow. The close of this of nearly tonal, manic depressive, hormonal effusion begins with something of a folk dance and aria in which the first violin asserts and the viola resists. Lots of violent tutti chattering’s conveyed the ambivalence of those flouted affirmations. Grouchy tremolos came across with theatrical menace in a dance of death…though the hoped-for reconciliation never materialized. The players brought us vividly into Janáček’s mise-en-scene with perfectly apt varieties of color, texture, and affect.
And then we received a mature and fully found traversal of Brahms’s String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51 No. 1, completed just a couple of years before that master escaped from the shadow of Beethoven with the publication of his first symphony. The Escher String Quartet took on a dark burnish of ravishing intensity with molten colorations and ripe, pleading expression. The melding of impeccable group dynamics and varied articulations with outpourings of individuality characterize the group’s distinctiveness. The second movement evoked a chorale of despair, as the first violin and viola cling to a trellis of sonic blooms, intertwining and ripening. In movement three, Allegretto molto moderato e comodo, cellist Speltz sounded aristocratically vocal. Then the golden-hour trio lilted in the most echt Viennese manner, recalling the young Brahms’s piano works. The quartet closed in commanding tones, albeit with those subtle cries to Clara, and Brahms’s minor ending, advocating artfully for the symphonic Brahms to come… “White Heat…Top of the World.”