ABOUT THE ARTISTS
The Escher String Quartet has received acclaim for its profound musical insight and rare tonal beauty. Championed by the Emerson String Quartet, the group was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2010 to 2012, giving debuts at both Wigmore Hall and the BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall. In its hometown of New York City, the ensemble serves as Artists of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and in December 2013 presented a critically acclaimed three-concert series featuring the quartets of Benjamin Britten. In 2013, the quartet became one of the very few chamber ensembles to be awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Within months of its inception in 2005, the Escher Quartet was invited by both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman to be 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 quartet has since collaborated with artists including David Finckel, Leon Fleischer, Wu Han, Lynn Harrell, Cho Liang Lin, David Shifrin, and guitarist Jason Vieaux. Last season, the Escher Quartet undertook an extensive tour of the UK with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.
The Escher Quartet is increasingly making a distinctive impression throughout Europe as it builds important debuts into its diary and receives consistently high acclaim for its work. Recent such engagements have included the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris and the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva among others. In 2013, the group’s first appearance at Israel’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art resulted in an immediate invitation to come back for a second concert, and its performance at Wigmore Hall was followed by an invitation to establish a regular relationship with the venue. The current season sees further significant debuts at London’s Kings Place, Berlin’s Konzerthaus, and Slovenian Philharmonic Hall in Ljubljana, as well as Great Music in Irish Houses and the Risør Festival in Norway.
Alongside its growing European profile, the Escher Quartet continues to flourish at home, performing at Alice Tully Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Ravinia and Caramoor festivals. Last season saw a critically acclaimed debut at Chamber Music San Francisco and an appearance at Music@Menlo in California. Elsewhere, the group gave its first Australian performances at Perth International Arts Festival in 2012, and this season makes its debut at the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival. The quartet is proud of its ongoing involvement in the education of young musicians, with coaching activities at Campos do Jordão Music Festival in Brazil and the Royal Academy of Music in London.
The quartet has recorded the complete Zemlinsky string quartets on the Naxos label, releasing two highly acclaimed volumes in 2013 and 2014. Forthcoming releases include the complete Mendelssohn quartet cycle on the BIS label.
The Escher Quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, inspired by Escher’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
The String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, was Beethoven’s first foray into the world of string quartets. He had mastered the piano sonata (the Pathétique was composed the year before), the piano trio, and various other chamber forms, seeming to use them as preparatory endeavors before taking on the genre of which his famous predecessors—Haydn and Mozart—were the indisputable masters.
The opening movement (Allegro con brio) starts with a theme based on a turn—an ornamentation like a slowed-down trill—which becomes a motive used throughout the movement. In his very first string quartet we see Beethoven using and reusing a seemingly tiny musical element in countless ways, providing both variety and unity. The second theme, a more song-like melody with upward leaps, is developed as well, but to a lesser extent.
A plaintive violin melody plays over triplets (three notes to a beat) to open the slow movement (Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato) in F minor. The cello takes the tune, and soon all the instruments participate. Long moments of rest between single chords provide tension—a technique of Haydn’s, here used by Beethoven to great dramatic effect. For brief moments the minor-key melody drops into the major, but the feeling is bittersweet, and we learn from Beethoven’s sketchbooks that this adagio was meant to depict the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The Scherzo (Allegro molto) changes the mood entirely, with bouncy syncopations, off-the-beat accents, and graceful turns. As is common, the central trio has a more rustic character, using booming cello notes and octave leaps accompanying fast runs in the violin. The entire movement is Haydnesque in its wit and playfulness, reminding us that the young Beethoven did study with Master Haydn, though their relationship was strained and brief.
The finale (Allegro) opens with fast triplet runs in a cheerful tune which, as in the first movement, is immediately and extensively developed. The second theme is once again more lyrical, and its development is briefer. Beethoven seems to be announcing to the world that his compositional style will be all about making the absolute most out of mere fragments of phrases.
Béla Bartók started out to be a concert pianist, but his friendship with Zoltán Kodály led to a fascination with the folk music of his native Hungary. They traveled together and collected thousands of authentic folk songs. 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 East European folk music.
In his String Quartet No. 2, Bartók alters the Classical pattern of movements by putting the fast movement in the middle and framing it with two slower ones. He incorporates the elements and styles of folk music—melody, harmony, and texture—rather than actually borrowing tunes. He said that folk song showed him how to free himself from the tyranny of the major and minor system.
The opening motif in the first violin is used as the seed for much of the material in the first movement (Moderato). At times, the motif is expanded into much longer notes, at other times it becomes a trill-like ornament on new themes. Bartok often uses polytonality, where each instrument plays a consonant line, but each in a different key, causing dissonant clashes with other voices.
In the second movement (Allegro molto capriccioso), we immediately hear the features of folk music—driving rhythms, modal melodies, and notes with falling inflections or glissandos. This central movement has a central section of its own, a slower conversation between the instruments, before returning to the wild ride. The coda is even faster, and ends with all four instruments playing in unison or octaves.
The last movement (Lento) begins with quiet, isolated notes and two-note chords (technically known as dyads), then slowly builds those notes into short motives. After a brief climactic passage where the instruments finally play cohesive phrases as an ensemble, the individual voices fade back into their own individual directions, until the viola and cello punctuate the end with two plucked notes. Kodály characterized the three movements of this quartet: 1. A quiet life; 2. Joy; and 3. Sorrow.
In 1895, Antonín Dvořák returned from his successful sojourn in the United States, during which he wrote a quartet and a quintet for strings as well as his Ninth Symphony, From the New World. Although he had greatly enjoyed the new experiences and the adulation he had received in America, he was also extremely homesick. After returning to his beloved Bohemia, he wrote of his great joy at being home, and of the ease of working on the String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op. 106. This quartet, his penultimate chamber work, was one of two he composed upon his homecoming. After this, he concentrated on tone poems on Czech subjects for the rest of his life.
The opening Allegro moderato presents a simple, short, fragmentary motif—an upward leap (a major sixth) followed by a cheerful cascade of notes. The development takes it into various keys, including minor keys, turning a small gesture into a substantial theme. When Dvořák taught composition at the Prague Conservatory, he wrote that he saw composition as the ability “to make a great deal—a very great deal—out of nothing much.” (As did Beethoven, apparently.) A second theme is playful, with prancing triplet accompaniment, and its development becomes the basis of the final cadence.
The slow movement (Adagio ma non troppo) alternates major and minor treatments of the theme, demonstrating the way contrasting emotions can coexist. Rich chords beneath a simple but mellifluous aria express deep contentment. When the melody moves into minor, the accompaniment takes on a poignant urgency.
The scherzo (Molto vivace) uses the cross-rhythms of the Czech folk dance known as the skočná. Instead of the usual ABA structure, this movement has two trios arranged in mirror fashion, making the outline ABACABA. Moods range from lively to lyrical, and keys travel widely—from B minor to A flat major to D major and back to B minor.
In the finale, a brief slow introduction (Andante sostenuto) leads into a fiery presentation of the theme (Allegro con fuoco). As with the scherzo, internal symmetry balances the movement, with recurring episodes as well as recurring rondo themes. To enhance the cyclic organization even further, the prancing theme and the upward leap from the first movement make brief appearances.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Program Notes © 2016 by Miriam Villchur Berg