Thursday, November 30, 2017

Escher String Quartet ascends to the heights of Beethoven in Ensemble Music concert

The Escher String Quartet offered two Viennese classics plus Ades.
"Allegro con spirito" is the movement direction that was clearly embodied as the Escher String Quartet played the first measures of Haydn's String Quartet in G, op. 76, no. 1, on Wednesday evening.

There was plenty of spirit, plus an admirably robust sound, which prevailed throughout the work. Presented by Ensemble Music Society, the American ensemble, in residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, projected a variegated, sympathetic concept of Haydn at the top of his form in the genre he practically invented.

The large audience in the Basile Auditorium of the Indiana History Center took to the Eschers immediately as a result. The warm rapport thus established helped sustain its obvious fascination with the late-20th-century piece that followed, "Arcadiana" by Thomas Ad├Ęs. The English composer wrote this at the beginning of an illustrious career that has carried him to the forefront of contemporary music in the United Kingdom.

The seven-movement suite presents an astonishing variety of idealistic evocations of
The French artist Poussin painted "Et in Arcadia ego" in 1637-38.
journeys to better places of the imagination. These depictions are inevitably shadowed by the death we all know to be our lot, as summed up in the Latin title of Nicolas Poussin's painting, "Et in Arcadia ego," with its central tomb in an idyllic pastoral setting. The work was a specific inspiration for the fourth movement of "Arcadiana." Nicholas Johnson's detailed program notes set every movement of the 20-minute piece in attractive context.

It's remarkable that so young a composer was able to reach out to so many styles of musical expression and fold them into his own language. The hints of older music, sometimes approaching quotation, seem much more successfully bound into something fresh than a few American composers (George Rochberg and Jacob Druckman, for example) achieved while high modernism, keyed to serialism, began breaking down as orthodoxy several decades ago. The wispy phrases of the finale, "Lethe," toy with the polarity of memorability and forgetfulness — an opposition that gives substance to all journeys we may undertake to Arcadia away from this life.

M.C. Escher's "Relativity": Games of perspective

The Eschers lived up to the Dutch artist they honor in their name with the well-knit manner in which they addressed the complexity of perspectives in this work. And all three of the pieces presented harness the centrifugal forces within them to produce coherent narratives, on all of which this quartet shone a bright light. Unanimity of concept and execution characterized the concert, though the Escher lacked the exquisite, unshakable balance of the Danish String Quartet that EMS presented last month.

The most extensive illustration of the Eschers' estimable skills came after intermission. It was Beethoven's Quartet in A minor, op. 132. The formally innovative work features a lengthy slow movement illustrating the composer's gratitude at recovery from a severe health crisis reflective of the horrendous burdens besides deafness that bedeviled Beethoven late in life.

The changing meaning of the two-part process of devout thankfulness and regained strength as the movement proceeds is vital to any performance.  The Eschers showed themselves remarkably patient about illuminating the transformation of the two themes into a conclusive outpouring of gratitude. 

The other four movements also had a complementary vigor and unhurried tension and release about them. Though the ovation was sustained and vigorous at the end, there seemed to be a general understanding that no encore was needed or even appropriate after such a performance of such a work.