October 2, 2016, 4pm

Escher String Quartet

The Escher String Quartet has received acclaim for its profound musical insight and rare tonal beauty. Championed by the Emerson String Quartet, the group was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2010-2012 and won the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. Returning to our series, they will perform quartets by Mendelssohn, Bartok and Dvorak.

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Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1                                MENDELSSOHN
            Molto allegro vivace
            Menuetto: un poco allegretto
            Andante espressivo ma con moto
            Presto con brio


Quartet No. 2, Op. 17                                                                 BARTOK
            Allegro molto capriccioso




Quartet in G Major, Op. 106                                                      DVORAK
            Allegro moderato
            Adagio ma non troppo
            Molto vivace
            Finale: Andante sostenuto – Allegro con fuoco


EXCLUSIVE MANAGEMENT:  Arts Management Group, Inc., 130 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019
Discography: NAXOS, BIS


Program Notes

Michael Lebovitch

MENDELSSOHN:  Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1

Between Beethoven’s creative summit and Wagner’s reign, Mendelssohn was Europe’s unparalleled musical personality:  composer, conductor, pianist, impresario and man of letters – he flourished during the two decades between mid-1820s and mid-1840s.  Born into an affluent family of great intellect, not even Mozart or Chopin before the age of nineteen could be equal to the mastery Mendelssohn already possessed when he was only sixteen, the age of his String Octet.  His death, at 38, greatly impoverished posterity.

The three quartets that make up Opus 44 date from 1837 and 1838.  Mendelssohn first wrote two quartets and then, added a third.  It is this third quartet that was published first as Opus 44 No. 1, ahead of the other two.  He greatly favored the No. 1 over its siblings in the Opus.  The Opus 44 quartets reveal a mature master with an extraordinary gift for lyrical melodic lines, transparent textures, mastery of large-scale structures, an imaginative sense of scoring, a harmonic palette of exceptional interest, and an unfailing sense of the dramatic.   

The First movement starts with a fascinating gambit:  over high energy of middle strings the first violin’s arpeggio based theme soars as dramatically as anything previously written.  This theme repeats in all places required by the sonata form in most interesting instrumentations.  The second theme is more subdued and offsets the main theme very effectively.  The Second movement is labeled as a Minuetto:  it starts with upward moving questions and down moving answers.  In the middle section, the first violin is playing slow scales over a harmonization of the original theme by lower instruments.  This theme makes a brief reappearance to conclude the movement.

The Third movement is the closest evidence of Beethoven’s influence on Mendelssohn.  The Slavic nature of the melody here is strongly reminiscent of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 1 quartet.  The Final movement represents Mendelssohn in most glorious optimism.  Based on a relentless dance-like rhythm whose pulse is pervasive and ever-present, in this movement he exploits an unmistakable juxtaposition of a clarion call and response.  The effect is rousing and theatrical.


BARTOK:  Quartet No. 2, Op. 17

During the early years of the 20th century, Bela Bartok became obsessed with the folk music of his native Hungary. He and his friend and colleague in composition Zoltan Kodaly trooped the hinterlands with, at first, pen and paper, and, later, a primitive phonograph to record the indigenous songs and dances that differed substantially from the four-square melodies that had been passed off for decades as authentic Hungarian or Gipsy.  With the dedication of a religious zealot, Bartok spent forty years collecting, transcribing and codifying Central European and North African folksongs, always mindful that these ages-old but fragile remnants of evolving cultures might vanish forever before they can be preserved.

Bartok’s Second String Quartet was written during World War I.  Bartok avoided army service because of ill health, and spent much of the war collecting folk music.  The structure of the quartet is in three movements, each lasting around 8 or 9 minutes, with the first and last movements on the slow side, and the middle movement a driving Allegro.  Zoltan Kodaly characterized the three movements of the quartet as: "1. A quiet life. 2. Joy. 3. Sorrow."  The sonata form of the First movement is worked out with Bartok’s typical rigor.  The main theme, introduced by the first violin, begins with a quick leap upward followed by a long note and a phrase descending through chromatically inflected melodic theme. The other instruments are drawn into the discussion of this subject, and lead directly to the second theme, a melody in smoother motion in which a little turn figure in triplet rhythm is imbedded. The development section is largely occupied with tightly evolved permutation of the principal theme. The recapitulation (repeat section) returns the earlier material, though the second theme is truncated to just a brief recollection, with the balance of the movement devoted to a coda taken from the main subject.

The Allegro of the Second movement occupies the center of the quartet and bears an immediate imprint of folk music: its form is a chain of continuous episodes arranged as a loose rondo, like a peasant dance with a recurring refrain; its rhythm is ferocious.  The movement ends with an extraordinary coda that is a quiet transformation of the main theme at such breakneck pace that the music becomes a buzzing murmur.

The Finale is bleak and sorrowful, music of intense expression that may reflect the grief of the time of its composition. Though the movement seems to unfold freely, pausing occasionally for a thoughtful breath, it is carefully generated from a small cache of melodic gestures: tiny, two-note motives, given by the second violin, with varying intervals of a third and a fourth, often in conflicting minor and major versions; then, a brief arching phrase in the first violin, that recalls the principal theme of the first movement, a falling figure of two short notes followed by a longer note.  In this third movement, we hear for the first time the Eastern European folk-lament rhythms that so characterize Bartok’s later work.


DVORAK:  Quartet in G Major, Op. 106 

In the Fall of 1895, Dvorak returned home after a three year stay in America.  The G major quartet Op. 106 seems to express the composer’s elated mood and creative joy, and the peace of mind he found on his return to his homeland.  The quartet contains both the demands of the standard classical quartet structure (concentration on form, the clarity of form, attention to detail) and Slavic melodic and rhythmic elements.

In the opening movement, two motifs are heard which develop into a theme.  The first motif is more rhythmic than melodic: three incisive upward leaps, the last prolonged by a quick fluttering, followed by a descending passage in triplets. The second motif bears traces of a folk melody.  Throughout the movement Dvorak ingeniously weaves the two motives together to create a rich texture in which the movement dances in the ears and in the imagination.  At the conclusion, a dynamic intensification leads to a climax with the main theme re-appearing.

The Second movement, an Adagio in variation form, counts among the loveliest and profound Dvorak ever wrote.   It is the most emotional part of the quartet.  While simple in form, it impacts with "grandioso" intensifications and rich orchestration.  It is an extraordinarily beautiful and poignant song characterized by a deeply Slavic sentiment. 

The Third movement is a jolly scherzo with two trios; it is the most "Slavic" of the quartet’s four movements.  Rhythmic and melodic themes use time changes and conflicting rhythmical intonations. The violin and viola sing a gentle duet in the first trio; following a short return of the initial section, a quiet second trio is reminiscent of a rocking Czech song.  The form of the movement is not simple - great strength and vigor alternate with lyrical beauty.

In the Finale, a short introduction in moderate tempo ushers in an exuberantly joyful melody.  The movement is principally a cyclical Rondo with multiple recurring outer and inner episodes.  Midway through, dancing themes and motifs from the first movement are heard in the episodes.  They disappear and reappear in nostalgic snatches as the movement advances.  In the end, the Czech exuberance wins out, bringing Dvorak's last string quartet to a rousing conclusion.


About the Artists

Adam Barnett-Hart, violin
Aaron Boyd, violin
Pierre Lapointe, viola
Brook Speltz, cello

“They hold the listener spellbound from first bar to last.”
              BBC Music Magazine, September 2014

The Escher String Quartet has received acclaim for its profound musical insight and rare tonal beauty. A former BBC New Generation Artist, the quartet has performed at the BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall and is a regular guest at Wigmore Hall. In its home town of New York, the ensemble serves as Artists of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, this season presenting the complete Zemlinsky Quartets Cycle in a concert streamed live from the Rose Studio. In 2013, the quartet became one of the very few chamber ensembles to be awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Within months of its inception in 2005, the ensemble came to the attention of key musical figures worldwide. Championed by the Emerson Quartet, the Escher Quartet was invited by both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman to be Quartet in Residence at each artist’s summer festival: the Young Artists Programme at Canada’s National Arts Centre; and the Perlman Chamber Music Programme on Shelter Island, NY. The quartet has since collaborated with artists including David Finckel, Leon Fleischer, Wu Han, Lynn Harrell, Cho Liang Lin, Joshua Bell, Vilde Frang, David Shifrin and guitarist Jason Vieaux.

The Escher String Quartet plays Schubert's Quartettsatz

The Escher Quartet has made a distinctive impression throughout Europe, with recent debuts including the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Konzerthaus and Les Grands Interprètes series in Geneva. Last season also saw debuts at London’s Kings Place and Slovenian Philharmonic Hall in Ljubljana, and festival appearances at Dublin’s Great Music in Irish Houses and the Risør Chamber Music Festival in Norway.

In the current season, the quartet undertakes further UK tours including the Wigmore Hall and makes debuts at the Heidelberg Spring Festival and De Oosterpoort Groningen in the Netherlands. The ensemble also renews its collaboration with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in a European tour including the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris.

Alongside its growing European profile, the Escher Quartet continues to flourish in its home country, performing at Alice Tully Hall in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington DC and the Ravinia and Caramoor festivals. In 2014, the quartet gave a highly praised debut at Chamber Music San Francisco and in 2015 returned to Music@Menlo in California, focussing on the quartets of Schubert. In the 12/13 season, the ensemble performed a critically acclaimed Britten Quartets series at The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and this season is one of five quartets chosen to collaborate in a complete presentation of Beethoven’s string quartets.

The Escher String Quartet plays Mozart K. 421 in D Minor

Elsewhere, the ensemble made its first Australian appearance at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2012, and last season made its debut at the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival. Return engagements took the quartet to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel and the Campos do Jordão Music Festival in Brazil for coaching activities. The quartet fervently supports the education of young musicians and frequently gives masterclasses, including regular coaching at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In Spring 2015, the quartet released Volume 1 of the complete Mendelssohn Quartets on the BIS label, received warmly by critics with comments such as “This is full-blooded quartet playing in the grand, classic manner: extrovert and eloquent… hugely engaging music-making” (BBC Music Magazine) and “The Eschers sound warm, relaxed and responsive to all of Mendelssohn’s expressive nuances…” (The Guardian). The Mendelssohn series continues this season with the release of Volume 2. The quartet has also recorded the complete Zemlinsky String Quartets in 2 volumes, released on the Naxos label in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Their great critical acclaim included 5 stars in the Guardian with “Classical CD of the Year”, a Recommendation in The Strad, “Recording of the Month” on MusicWeb International and a nomination for a BBC Music Magazine Award.

The Escher Quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, inspired by Escher’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole.