incident light

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 Temple Beth-El.

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. .

Mike Greenberg