Escher String Quartet has a mixed night in Chamber Music Society program

Wed May 08, 2019 at 10:53 am
The Escher String Quartet performed Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Sarah Skinner

The Escher String Quartet performed Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Sarah Skinner

The Escher String Quartet has had a recent personnel change, with Danbi Um replacing Aaron Boyd as second violin. Yet Tuesday night’s Chamber Music Society concert in Alice Tully Hall showed this to be irrelevant with the group’s overall excellence unchanged.

The quartet played with an exceptional, unified sound and intonation, and with great musicality to their phases. First violinist Adam Barnett-Hart has a sweet, singing sound that was a pleasure to hear throughout. Yet there were substantial stretches when the beauty of their sound was left unsupported by some combination of focus and direction.

This was more than surprising. The Escher Quartet tends to make everything they play sound like a masterpiece, or like the performance could not be bettered. And they had a strong program at their disposal; Mozart’s third “Prussian” Quartet, K. 590, Charles Ives’ String Quartet No. 2, and after intermission the Op. 131 Quartet in C-sharp minor by Beethoven.

The Mozart performance was excellent, flawless and with superb poise. The Escher presented a rounded sound with ample space around each instrument, not too big, not too small. Their playing was a display of Mozart’s values, the pleasure of line, forward motion, structural resolution, with a feeling of great humanity.

The opening two-thirds of the Ives quartet. “Discussions” and “Arguments,” were equally as fine. The music is as titled, a radical democratization of classical form. The Escher played it with bite and muscle, while never abandoning the traditional virtues of ensemble blend, cohesion, and interplay.

It was in the final section of the quartet, “Call to the Mountains,” when things started to go awry. The technical quality of the musicianship was still there, yet the playing turned oddly generic, outwardly expressive in the shaping of phrases and dynamics, but without style or insight. The notes were there, but didn’t connect with Ives’ music.

Like Ives, Beethoven’s Op. 131 quartet began with a clear expressive purpose, playing that was focused on using the group’s sound to carry strong feelings of commitment and experience. The opening movement was exactly as the composer marked, “Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo”; slow but flowing, in gorgeous sound, the musicians responding to the music.

But things gradually got away from the Escher. The two quick Allegro movements were spry, but a confounding sense of ordinariness crept in and subsumed the central Andante. There was too much weight—this was the problem with the last movement of the Ives quartet as well—the feeling was too much like the Adagio. The sound was still great but it was off, not mannered nor indulgent but too full to let enough air and light in so one could catch a glimpse of Beethoven.

This was not a problem in the faster music, as if Beethoven didn’t give the Escher enough time to overly contemplate the sound coming out of their instruments, but led to a faceless Adagio quasi un poco andante, after which the conclusion was technically satisfying but not compelling. Like a finely made, tasteful outfit draped on a mannequin, one admired it briefly but left it on the rack.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents new music in the Rose Studio, 6:30 and 9 p.m., Thursday, May 16.

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