Escher String Quartet
Romanticism, morning to dusk
March 4, 2014
The Escher String Quartet of New York visited on
Sunday with elegant, somewhat contained accounts of works
representing Romanticism in morning (Robert Schumann),
mid-afternoon (Antonín Dvořák) and dusk (Alban Berg). The
San Antonio Chamber Music Society presented the concert in
Established in 2005, the widely traveled quartet comprises
violinists Adam Barrett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre
Lapointe and cellist Dane Johansen.
Speaking to the audience between Schumann’s String Quartet
in A Minor, from 1842, and Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3,
from 1910, Mr. Boyd observed that Schumann’s way of
exploring the inner life paved the way for Berg, the most
lyrical composer of the Second Viennese School.
Granted, the foregrounding of emotion had previously
been advanced by Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven,
and even to a degree by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the
Romantic ideal of unfettered emotional transparency reached
its first full flowering in Schumann. A line from Liszt and
Wagner led to the formal and harmonic fluidity of
Expressionism, a style perfectly suited to tracing the
minute and multileveled contours of the unconscious, an
undercurrent of interior life that might be said to run
deeper than the emotions. That’s the world of early
Schoenberg and his student, Berg, prior to the emergence of
free tonality and, later, the 12-tone method. The sun has
set on Romanticism, but its afterglow lingers.
Berg’s Op. 3 is almost literally pivotal. The first of its
two movements uses a whole-tone scale and thus relates
closely to the sound world of Debussy — harmonically
slippery but still structured. The second movement is
tonally freer (not “atonal,” a term that is strictly
applicable only to John Cage’s 4’33”). The whole
work is, to my ear, more attentive to the subconscious than
Berg’s later “Lyric Suite” for string quartet, composed
under the 12-tone discipline.
Individually and as an ensemble, the members of the
Escher produced uncommonly beautiful sounds — creamy
chordings, polished surfaces, a consonance of temperament
that compensated for occasional looseness of attacks. A
tendency to understatement — almost, at times, to the point
of reticence — and a compressed dynamic range left some
money on the table in both Berg and Schumann.
Dvořák’s Quartet in C, Op. 61, however, got a fully stylish
performance marked by rhythmic acuity, an ideal vibrato and,
in the slow movement, a fine feeling for the composer’s
mobile harmonies. .