Escher Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Borodin, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky

String Quartet No.2 in D
String Quartet No.9 in E-flat, Op.117
String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.11

Escher Quartet [Adam Barnett-Hart & Bryan Lee (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola) & Brook Speltz (cello)]

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 29 January, 2018
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Escher QuartetPhotograph: Sarah SkinnerThe Escher Quartet members have impressed me in concert and on record – their series of the Mendelssohn Quartets for BIS is probably the best available. So this Russian evening at Wigmore Hall held out high hopes for a similar triumph. The first crack in my confidence came when I realised not only that Aaron Boyd, the exceptional second violin, had recently left the group, but that his successor Danbi Um was not appearing – a friend ‘in the know’ explained that Um had been unable to give them their British dates. In her place appeared Bryan Lee, the second violinist of the outstanding young Dover Quartet – an excellent player, but…

Borodin’s Second Quartet, a work demanding superhuman tonal and ensemble control, suffered almost immediately from harsh violin tone and in general the Allegro moderato was unsympathetically played. The finicky filigree in the Scherzo showed (as did the more intricate passages in the third and final movements) that there is a difference between mere togetherness and the sort of ethereal togetherness we have been led to expect after so many wonderful performances by the Borodin Quartet of Moscow. The cello-playing of the Escher Quartet’s Brook Speltz was a source of wonder throughout the work, and he really came into his own in the outer sections of the ‘Notturno’, but here again the violins were not up his standard and the famous melody lacked sheen. The man who shouted “Bravo!” following the performance had presumably never heard one of the great Russian ensembles in this music…

As the players began Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet, we suddenly seemed to be in a different world, as everything came together. Yes, there was still some harshness, but it suits the music, and most of the playing was beautiful. This is a tricky work, in the five-movement arch form favoured by several twentieth-century composers – notably Bartók – but Shostakovich’s sections play continuously, each new one heralded by a brief rhetorical flourish. The opening Moderato con moto was given with great intensity, which increased for the first of the two Adagios, movingly played. The central Allegretto had real bite and some nicely rhythmical interchanges, and the briefer second Adagio was thoroughly absorbing. The Finale poses many challenges, including a number of tempo and mood changes, but these were all convincingly met.

After the interval, we might have expected that Tchaikovsky’s D-major Quartet would go well, with the ensemble thoroughly played in, but we were back to the unsatisfactory Borodin mixture of harsh violins and decent viola and cello. The programme annotator added to my dissatisfaction by writing about “the orchestral grandeur of the opening movement”. It is time to lay this silly old chestnut of Tchaikovsky’s chamber music being “orchestral” to rest – his Quartets and Sextet are about as orchestral as my granny’s bed-socks. But back to the Escher Quartet’s performance. I suddenly began to wonder if leader Adam Barnett-Hart was trying too hard. His playing in the famous Andante cantabile lacked the necessary magic, and although he made some welcome adjustments in dynamic level, the outer sections could have been played more quietly. Having played at Wigmore Hall regularly, according to their ‘biography’ (mostly PR puffery in the modern manner), these players ought to be aware that in this celebrated acoustic you need only to touch the string with the bow to be heard at the back of the hall. The Scherzo, so bracing in the recording by the Smetana Quartet (which I commend – it is on Testament SBT 1119), sounded crude and uncouth, while the Finale did nothing to raise my spirits.

No encore was demanded or played, which was a fair reflection on an evening of more disappointments than rewards. The Escher musicians, with Aaron Boyd still aboard, have recorded the Borodin and Tchaikovsky works for their latest BIS disc, along with Dvořák’s ‘American’. Perhaps they will come across better there.

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