Escher Quartet: Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Brook Speltz (cello)
Photo by Sophie Zhai
Wigmore Hall, London
Monday, 8 February 2016
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 10 March
What’s the music?
Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Andante and Scherzo for String Quartet, Op.81/1 & 2 (1847) (10 minutes)
Schubert (1797-1827): String Quartet in D minor D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824) (40 minutes)
The Escher Quartet have made recordings of the music of Mendelssohn, but these are not currently available on Spotify. Instead you can hear the music played by the quartet’s unofficial mentors, the Emerson String Quartet, on the playlist below – including the off-broadcast encore of Haydn:
About the music
Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet is arguably the most famous in the string quartet repertoire. It is certainly one of the composer’s finest works in the form, and brings with it a steely tone and darkness that had only really been heard before in the works of Beethoven.
The reason for its nickname lies in the second movement, a set of variations on a theme from a song of the same name written by Schubert in 1817. It is the emotional heart of the work, but there is plenty elsewhere that leaves a lasting and deeply felt impression. The way the quartet leaps out of the blocks at the start is striking, as is the quick chase of the last movement.
Schubert wrote the quartet in 1824, after a serious illness – and when he realised, at the age of 27, that he was not going to recover. It carries a lot of resentment and anger, but also a deeper resolve.
Mendelssohn also wrote his Andante and Scherzo in the final year of his life. They were the start of a projected seventh string quartet, but in the event were the only two movements written. Two earlier movements were added to make a set of four that were published as his Op.81, but the four pieces are rarely heard together.
Mendelssohn was suffering at the time of composition from a series of strokes, heavily aggravated by the death of his sister Fanny. He, like Schubert, died at such a young age – 38 – but you would never know from the size and maturity of his compositional output.
The Escher Quartet gave a superb account of Death and the Maiden, achieving remarkable clarity and unity of ensemble in the striking unison moments, but also reaching great emotional depths in the Theme & Variations second movement. This was the heart of their performance, but technically their fast playing in the third movement Scherzo, with its driving syncopations, and the fourth movement, with its quick fire string writing, were hugely impressive.
Despite the prevailing darkness this was a performance that offered hope in the lighter moments that come along – the sunny disposition of the third movement Trio and the brief major key excursions of the finale being two examples. The end was utterly convincing.
The Mendelssohn made an ideal contrast, the lightness of the Andante enhanced by the velvety tone of Pierre Lapointe’s viola in the first variation on the theme. In the Scherzo the quartet’s unity was again in evidence, but so was the furtive nature of much of Mendelssohn’s arguments, fading to the end with unsettling speed.
As an encore – unfortunately not heard on the radio broadcast – we heard the slow movement from Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op.20/5. First violinist Adam Barnett-Hart dedicated this to Haydn himself, ‘the father of the string quartet’ – without whom the form would not even exist! It was an appropriate and affectionate finish to a very fine recital.
What should I listen out for?
1:30 – an airy Andante theme, light of touch. The variations on it begin at 2:18 where the viola takes the lead, after which there is a sweet violin solo. Despite the sunny air there is a note of nervousness too, realised at 4:39 when the music switches to the minor key. The theme returns at 6:03 – and all is now well as the music finishes quietly.
7:32 – the Scherzo is also light of touch, though much quicker – and here the nervousness is right to the fore. There are moments of subtle humour, and the music is in the form of a quick dance, but it is a shadowy outline too. There is a hint of a more fluid waltz at 10:55, but the music becomes detached again, petering out at the end.
13:39 – the start of this quartet is one of the most instantly recognisable tunes in all string quartet writing, hurled out as a unison by all four instruments. The mood is immediately fraught, and Schubert makes frequent references to two themes – the one punched out at the beginning and a second, quicker one at 14:11. These compete for space throughout the first movement.
At 16:55 the music sweetens for the first time, but by 20:18 the main theme returns. The movement ends in brooding fashion.
25:58 – this is the centrepiece of the quartet, a movement of theme and variations. The theme, a solemn and very sad tune heard from the outset, seems almost inconsolable, but as Schubert begins to work his magic it becomes more flexible in musical content and mood. The violin is sweeter, while from 30:33 the cello takes over expressively. From 32:31 the quartet are united in driving forward. The music spends some time briefly in the sunny major key, but from 36:47 is ploughed back into a mood of sombre uncertainty, and the emotional climax of the movement from 37:30.
The final minutes are plaintive but ultimately positive, falling into silence at 39:44.
40:27 – the third movement is a Scherzo – and finds us resolutely back in the quartet’s ‘home’ key of D minor. The music drives forward with grim determination, but the clouds part at 42:05 for the ‘trio’ section, where the textures are lighter and the tune much sweeter. The respite is all too brief, though, and we head back to the scherzo music at 43:31.
44:35 – the last movement is a quick dash, the four instruments chasing as a pack with a distinctive tune that seems destined never to stop. Because this is a ‘rondo’ it is written in a certain form that means the main tune recurs several times, interspersed by a grand ‘B’ section (46:16) and a ‘C’ (47:02)
Encore (not heard on the broadcast)
The slow movement from Haydn‘s String Quartet in F minor Op.20/5 – one of the composer’s ‘Sun’ quartets.
You can watch the Escher Quartet in the slightly earlier Quartet movement (Quartettsatz) by Schubert in the clip below:
There are some very fine late works from Mendelssohn to explore, darker though they have become because of the death of the composer’s sister. The F minor string quartet, published as Op.80, is especially good, as is the late String Quintet no.2 in B flat major, Op.87. Both can be found on the Spotify playlist below: