Escher String Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Haydn & Bartók

String Quartet in D, Op.76/5
String Quartet No.5

Escher String Quartet [Adam Barnett-Hart & Wu Jie (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola) & Dane Johansen (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 13 February, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

One of the requirements of being a performing artist is the ability to react positively to unexpected situations. So it was that Adam Barnett-Hart, leader of the Escher Quartet, developed a nosebleed at the end of the first movement of Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet, and had to leave the stage for several minutes in order to recover. His colleagues soon joined him in the green room and then re-grouped to complete this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, stopping between movements for Barnett-Hart to stem the still-flowing blood.

It was to their credit that this considerable distraction did not stop them from completing the concert with relatively little fuss. Moreover their Bartók interpretation was able to re-captivate the audience with immediate effect on its resumption. True, it could have done with more assertiveness in the ensemble passages, but the players enjoyed the persuasive rhythms of the Scherzo ‘alla Bulgarese’, the weird and wonderful sounds of the two night-music movements and the robust melodies of the outer movements.

The musicians’ sound was initially boosted by the ample lower register of Dane Johansen, who also secured convincing duet-playing with Pierre Lapointe. The two violinists also played as one, though rhythmically the ensemble could have been more incisive and more dynamic when the B flat unisons were in play. The slow movements in particular were effective; the odd staccatos of the second one heard in the middle distance, while Lapointe’s winding melodies were particularly effective in response. The finale was driven along to a brilliant climax that threw the strangely detached hurdy-gurdy episode into context.

Prior to the Bartók – and the nosebleed – the Escher performed the fifth of Haydn’s Opus 76 set of six string quartets, published in 1799 at a point where the composer’s approach to the form was taking on a more symphonic approach. The Escher’s interpretation was oddly earthbound in the first movement, with a relatively thick sound and one-dimensional phrasing resisting the charm of Haydn’s melodies. The inner parts were highlighted – often a bonus – but this proved more of a hindrance on this occasion, as Barnett-Hart’s sweet melodies did not fully project. Happily these problems did not extend to the beautifully controlled slow movement, where the richer tone was now appropriate (and carefully marshalled), given the heady key of F sharp. There was humour and vigour aplenty in the Minuet, its sforzando accents well-observed, while the crisp cadence of the fourth movement met with a quick-fire response, the musicians catching Haydn’s harmonic diversions to the letter.

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