Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg*

The Escher Quartet

Adam Barnett-Hart, violin
Aaron Boyd, violin
Pierre Lapointe, viola
Brook Speltz, cello

Sunday, August 2, 2015, 4 pm


String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6, “Frog” (1787)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Poco adagio
Menuetto: Allegretto
Finale: Allegro con spirito

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7 (1908-1909)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Lento – attacca:
Poco a poco accelerando all’Allegretto –
Introduzione Allegro – attacca: Allegro vivace


String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, Op. 29, No. 1, D. 804, “Rosamunde” (1824)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Allegro ma non troppo
Menuetto (Allegretto)
Allegro moderato

next week

Saturday, August 8, 11 am | YOUNG PEOPLE’S CONCERT — Miró Quartet
Admission is free for all young people under 16. Adults pay $5 each.

Saturday, August 8, 6 pm | Miró Quartet
Schubert: Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887; Beethoven: Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

Sunday, August 9, 4 pm | Danish String Quartet
Music of Shostakovich, Carl Nielsen, and Thomas Adès (b. 1971)



The Escher String Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart, violin; Aaron Boyd, violin; Pierre Lapointe, viola; Brook Speltz, cello) has received acclaim for its individual sound, inspired artistic decisions, and unique cohesiveness. Championed by members of the Emerson String Quartet, the group was proud to be BBC New Generation Artists for 2010–2012. Having completed a three-year residency as artists of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program, the ensemble has already performed at prestigious venues around the world including Alice Tully Hall, the 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space, the Kennedy Center, Wigmore Hall, and the Louvre. The quartet has performed at major festivals including Ravinia, Caramoor, Music@Menlo, West Cork, and the City of London, and made a tour of China that included Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou.

Within months of its inception in 2005, the Escher String Quartet was invited by both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman to be the quartet-in-residence at each artist’s summer festival: the Young Artists Program at Canada’s National Arts Centre and the Perlman Chamber Music Program on Shelter Island, NY. The Eschers have since collaborated with artists such as Andrés Diaz, Lawrence Dutton, Kurt Elling, David Finckel, Leon Fleisher, Vadim Gluzman, Benjamin Grosvenor, Wu Han, Gary Hoffman, Joseph Kalichstein, David Shifrin, and Joseph Silverstein. In August 2012, the quartet gave their BBC Proms debut, performing Hugh Wood’s String Quartet No. 4.

In 2012–2013, the Escher Quartet completed their final BBC New Generation Artists recording project in London, and returned to the Wigmore Hall following their successful debut there. They have continued their relationship with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, curating and performing a series of concerts celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. Other recent highlights include performances at the Library of Congress, the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, the prestigious Agence de Concerts et Spectacles Cæcilia in Geneva, an Austrian debut in Eisenstadt, and concerts at several UK festivals including Paxton and Gregynog.

The Escher’s recent recorded releases include the complete quartets of Alexander Zemlinsky on Naxos. Other recordings include the Amy Beach Piano Quintet with Anne-Marie McDermott (CMS Studio Recordings) and Stony Brook Soundings Vol. 1 (Bridge Records), which features the quartet in the premiere recordings of five new works.

The Escher String Quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and draws inspiration from the artist’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole.

Haydn’s contemporary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) said that a string quartet was “a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.” In his view, the first violin was the one with the most vehement opinions, with the others contributing a few agreeable remarks. Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet for framing that conversation in a distinctive and elegant format, with each instrument given something important to say. The six quartets of Haydn’s Op. 50 (named “Prussian” for the King to whom they were dedicated) represent the full flowering of the composer’s technical and expressive artistry.

The opening movement (Allegro) of the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6, offers a highly motivic theme—a long note, four descending short notes, and a final accented long note. This theme is developed, passed back and forth among the players, turned upside down, and transformed in countless ways.

The slow movement, Poco adagio, starts in a somber D minor. Here the participants in the quartet conversation provide contrasting opinions—some slow and staid, others restless and energetic. A lilting 6/8 meter prevents the movement from descending into morose melancholy.

Although Haydn had already started to give the name scherzo rather than menuetto to some of his third movements, he decided to use the older terminology (Menuetto: Allegretto) in this work. A dramatic dotted phrase announces the dancing minuet theme, which is full of short repeated sections. In the central trio, the violin trills up to a high repeated note as the others play cascades of descending runs. As usual, the minuet theme returns to complete the frame.

The finale gives the piece its nickname, the “Frog” quartet. Haydn uses a special string technique known as bariolage, which is a repeated alternation between the same pitch on different strings. The technique is used throughout the finale, and was thought to sound like the croaking of a frog. Haydn also brings back the theme from the first movement, in one of the earliest examples of the cyclic form that was used extensively in the coming years by Beethoven, Schubert, and many other later composers.

Béla Bartók started out to be a concert pianist playing the classics. His friendship with Zoltán Kodály led to a fascination with the folk music of his native Hungary. As Bartók’s compositional voice emerged, it incorporated the influences of Classical-era music, Debussy and the Impressionists, and the modal scales and asymmetrical rhythms of eastern European folk music.

Bartók was accused by the Hungarian government of “lack of patriotism,” making it difficult for him to earn a living. In protest against the rise of fascism, he refused to allow his work to be broadcast on German or Italian radio. In 1940, he left Budapest for good, settling in the United States. Although his genius went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, he is now understood to be one of the great composers of the twentieth century.

The String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, opens with a canon based on large descending leaps joined by a smaller rising interval. The predominance of descending intervals gives the impression of constant downward motion. The theme was one he had used in a lighthearted way in a concerto he wrote for the violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he held a deep but unrequited affection. Here, he turns these four notes into an expression of despair. In a letter to her, Bartok called this movement his “funeral dirge.” A central section uses angry open fifths (also open strings, making them especially resonant) on the cello, followed by a more upbeat passage with harmonies that sound almost like standard major chords. The movement ends with a different exploration of the opening theme.

Instead of the usual pattern of movements (fast, slow, scherzo, faster), Bartók’s quartet starts slow (Lento) and gets progressively faster. The second movement (Poco a poco accelerando all’Allegretto—slowly speeding up to a moderately fast tempo) opens with a number of short passages followed by pauses and responsive phrases, like a series of questions and hesitant answers. Textures, styles, tempi, and moods change constantly in this emotionally charged movement.

In the introduction (Allegro) to the final movement, the cello plays in dialogue with the combined forces of the other members of the ensemble. The violin takes the next solo, high in its range. This longest movement (Allegro vivace) is again episodic and changeable, but the moments of darkness are balanced and finally vanquished by the faster, lighter, more hopeful passages. A new theme is introduced by the viola and taken up in canon, or imitation, by the second violin, the first violin, and then the cello. This canon’s subject is more uplifting and even witty, with trills and bouncy dotted rhythms. The ending has both violins on a high note, and the viola and cello in unison and duets. The composer’s great friend Zoltán Kodály called this quartet an expression of Bartók’s “return to life.”

Schubert’s String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804 was published as Op. 29, No. 1. It was to be a set of three, but the publisher decided against the others. The two rejected quartets—Death and the Maiden and the masterpiece in G major—are now among the most beloved chamber works of all time. This is the only string quartet that was published within the composer’s lifetime. The quartet was premiered in Vienna by the finest quartet in the city—the Schuppanzigh Quartet, led by famed violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

In the Allegro ma non troppo, the violin sings a poignant aria, starting with the notes of the descending A minor chord. The second violin provides a “spinning wheel” accompaniment. This theme is immediately developed, with alternations of major and minor treatments, as well as contrasts between lyrical sections and short but forceful musical exclamations. The descending triad is used as a unifying motif throughout the movement.

The slow movement (Andante) gives the quartet its nickname of “Rosamunde.” Schubert borrowed the gently dotted melody from one he composed as an entr’acte (music played between the acts of a stage performance) for the short-lived play Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus. Once again, the song in the first violin is accompanied by faster notes in the second violin, emphasizing the innocent sweetness of the theme.

In the minuet movement (Menuetto: Allegretto), the cello sets an intense mood with a simple but dramatic three-note figure that is another self-quotation, this time from a Lied (art song) setting of a mournful Schiller poem. The central trio section, which often provides a more lively contrast to the minuet, is here more wistful than cheerful. One audience member at the premiere remarked that the whole piece was well received, especially the “extraordinarily tender” minuet.

Although the dynamic markings are piano and pianissimo for most of the Finale (Allegro moderato), this movement is enlivened by the strong dotted accents and the independence of the four instrumental lines.

All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg.
It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy, publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at miriam@hvc.rr.com.

Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg