The much lauded Escher Quartet lived up to its laurels Sunday afternoon to open the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival at the Spa Little Theatre. It was the quartet’s debut performance in what festival artistic director André-Michel Schub told the crowd would be a “life-changing experience.”
Violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Dane Johansen have been together since 2005, and in that time they’ve created a group that can do delicacy, lushness, froth or rough edges with equal aplomb. They’re technically excellent, play with great clarity and have a purity of sound that is unforced no matter the dynamic levels, which were always controlled.
They needed that versatility and virtuosity in the program they chose: Beethoven, Britten, Smetana and — lucky for the crowd – Ravel. The first three were also the last completed work (Beethoven), the final work (Britten), or a late, autobiographical work (Smetana) in each composer’s life. As such, each composer had something to say about death and life, Boyd said.
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, had a charm, sweet lyricism and transparent lines even within his experimentations of having two slow movements to end the work, one of which was “like standing naked before God,” Boyd said, because of its sublime, slow, sustained lines. The Escher set rollicking tempos for the quicker two movements and a gentle pacing for the other two. They showed a delicacy of touch even with the occasionally raucous chords, which allowed the music to sing.
Britten’s Quartet No. 3, which is rarely performed, had an atonal lyricism, some fierce sections, a slow third movement with a violin solo that slowly ascended in a searching manner and some bold and taunting passages that spotlighted each instrument.
Boyd said the piece meant much to the group and it played with a strong commitment and a great attention to detail. Much thought had obviously gone into the playing because of its complex nature.
Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 in E minor (“From My Life”) is a marvelously romantic, searingly intense, beautifully conceived work that had everything a player or listener could want. The Escher superbly played the first movement’s wonderfully rippling harmonies and romantic lines, the bouncy gallop of the second, the heart-wrenching melodies of the third and the dramatic and joyous fourth.
Their performance brought the crowd to its feet with loud cheers and clapping. The encore was the second movement of Ravel’s Quartet with all of its feathery flashes of color and marvelous French flavor and charm. The Escher was fabulous.
The next concert on the series is on Tuesday with violinist Gil Shaham and his violinist wife, Adele Anthony, with friends from the Philadelphia Orchestra.