Brilliant Unease from the Escher String Quartet
Last night the Escher String Quartet wound up this season’s characteristically eclectic Music Mondays series on the upper west side with an equally eclectic and intuitive performance. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 6. in F Minor, Op. 80 was first on the bill. It’s one of the most impactful, stormily poignant pieces of music he ever wrote, and his last major work. We tend to forget how young he died: it’s a cruel reminder of the other masterpieces he might have been able to create. The ensemble dug in hard, anchored by the viola of Pierre Lapointe and the cello of Dane Johansen as it churned with an outright angst that this composer seldom alluded to so directly, the first movement’s abrupt tempo change coming as a genuine surprise. They turned the courtly dance of a second movement into a bitter, tearstained anthem and let the triumph of the final movement speak for itself without taking it up much further: the depth of this piece lingered long after it was done.
Which was all the more remarkable considering that the second work on the bill was Australian composer Brett Dean’s 2002 triptych Eclipse, inspired by the cruel fate of the waves of refugees taking to the Indian Ocean in decrepit vessels around that time. The quartet gave a tightly wound luminosity to its quietly shrieking, atonally shifting sheets of sound, negotiated the tricky rhythms of a weirdly spacious pizzicato interlude and then brought a semblance of closure as it wound down with a hypnotic sostenuto on the stratospherically elegant wings of Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie’s violins. As radically different as it was from the Mendelssohn, it made an emotionally apt segue. The quartet closed with Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 4. Lapointe mentioned beforehand that it harks back to Schumann, and it does, but there are also echoes of Alban Berg in its uneasy, defiant absence of resolution: High Romantic architecture incorporating remarkably modern tonalities. It made an unexpectly strong segue with the even uneasier works on the bill yet managed to send the crowd out on a note that at least intimated that things would be somewhat less arduous. It’s not every day that an ensemble tackles a program this brave and challenging, from both a musical and emotional perspective.
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