PCMS presents the Escher Quartet

A fine Philly debut

The youthful Escher Quartet—violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Brook Speltz—is one of the fastest-rising ensembles on the chamber-music circuit. Currently artists in residence at Lincoln Center, they made their local debut at the American Philosophical Society under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and a fine one it was. As this group demonstrated from the opening chords of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F Minor, it has sonority and energy to burn. But it also, as a full and challenging program revealed, possesses musical depth and maturity that belie its members’ years.

The Escher Quartet takes Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Chamber Music Society)

The program’s first half paired two composers who share an often-unnoticed sensibility. Mendelssohn and Benjamin Britten were both in their mid-30s when they completed the Mendelssohn Sixth and the Britten Second, both featured here. Britten would live another 30 productive years, but Mendelssohn would die within months of completing his F Minor, and it is in some ways an unwittingly valedictory work.

Prodigies and parallels

Mendelssohn and Britten were both prodigies, Mendelssohn having completed his great String Octet by age 14. Britten was producing mature music in his teens, including a repertory staple, the so-called (and anything but) Simple Symphony at 20. Both men would have extraordinary public careers: Mendelssohn as a major scholar and choral impresario who almost singlehandedly reintroduced Bach to the European public, and Britten as a tireless advocate of British music and the founder of the Glyndebourne Festival. Beyond that, however, both men shared similarities. Both were rapid and nervous in musical temperament, both were often mercurial in compositional mood, and both, although admired, suffered critical discounting for a perceived lack of depth. This is unfair; there is certainly pain and lurking tragedy in much of their finest music, and if they don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves it isn’t for lack of feeling.

Escher made these points strongly in its readings of the urgent, propulsive Mendelssohn Sixth and the kaleidoscopic Britten Second. From Brook Speltz’s first stabbing cello chord and Pierre Lapointe’s swift viola response, there is little letup in the Mendelssohn, particularly in its first two movements and again in the passionate Allegro molto finale. Mendelssohn was grieving for his recently deceased and much beloved sister Fanny as he composed his quartet, but what he touched, as all great music does, was something more universal, a part of our common fate and sorrow.

Written in 1945 at the end of World War II, Britten’s work also has urgency, speaking to public tragedy even if in personal tones. Britten was a lifelong pacifist who expressed his convictions in such works as his War Requiem and in his operas, The Rape of Lucretia and Billy Budd. There’s always a sense of understatement in his music, though, of something withheld even when it’s at its most full-throated. This quartet, unlike Mendelssohn’s, begins with a meandering theme that seems to be stepped on by a pedal-point drone in the viola, and although it gradually unfolds a large and multitextured sonic world, grandly underpinned by its concluding chaconne, it never loses its searching reticence. Britten returned to the medium of the quartet near the end of his life, and his contribution to the form -- though lesser in quantity than those of Shostakovich, Bartok, Schoenberg, or Carter -- deserves wider recognition.

A jarring note

Back to back, the Mendelssohn and Britten quartets consumed an hour, but Escher returned after the intermission with an even more extended work, Anton Bruckner’s 45-minute String Quintet in F, with the great Samuel Rhodes, late of the Juilliard Quartet, sitting in as second viola. Escher is deeply committed to this work, and its first violinist remarked before the performance that its Adagio is the only music of the 19th century that ranks with Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s a big claim for any music, but the Escher made it as close to good as any playing can.

Of course, the great slow movements of Bruckner’s last three symphonies are among the glories of 19th-century symphonic music, but the intimacy of a reduced scale gave this Adagio a warmth and color all its own. Like the lone Sibelius Quartet, the Bruckner Quintet is an outlier among the symphonies for which the composer is best known and had never been presented before by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. May it, and Escher, soon return.

The only jarring note in the occasion was an insert in the program from the Pew Trusts in honor of Wilson Goode, who is praised as Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor. Omitted was the fact that he is also remembered as the mayor who bombed his own city. The PCMS does a splendid job in bringing the city great music. It, and its patrons, need no politically motivated distractions from outside.

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