PCM6: Escher String Quartet – Hugh Wood & Debussy

Hugh Wood
String Quartet No.4
String Quartet in G minor

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 20 August, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Escher Quartet. Photograph: J. Henry FairIt was gratifying indeed to hear Hugh Wood’s Fourth String Quartet. Wood, here interviewed is unassuming and modest, and retains a youthful manner in his 80th-birthday year. He was happy to acknowledge a debt to elder-statesman Elliott Carter (104 this coming December) and also to put the record straight regarding the influence of Schoenberg on British composers of the latter half of the last century. With a glint in the eye, he responded to the Escher Quartet’s initial expectations of a “quartet with British reserve” by saying how “there are a few Brits who are aware of Schoenberg – though we’re a diminishing bunch!” He went on to reveal the music’s primary inspiration, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, quoting the last six lines as a spoken prelude to the Escher Quartet’s performance.

Wood’s Fourth String Quartet, completed in 1993, does indeed take its lead from Schoenberg, its opening calling to mind that of the latter’s Third String Quartet, but the theme also bears similarities in its use of the upbeat to Debussy’s own work in the form. The Escher Quartet gave an incisive performance, the musicians’ excellent technical command and crisp ensemble producing a reading that kept a keen tension throughout the first movement. Adam Barnett-Hart handled the cadenza with considerable brio, as he did the instances of rapid pizzicato elsewhere. Despite the abrasive timbres and crunchy chords there were fleeting moments of tenderness where time tarried, and the Escher caught the measure of these interludes just right, poignant but not sentimental, with the Adagio a special case in point.

The Debussy was less successful, though this could be in part due to the frequency with which we hear the piece in the concert hall these days, wonderful though it is. The Escher Quartet has a clear affection for the many and varied colours that Debussy achieves from the instruments, but this account proved brusque and overlooked the composer’s frequent witticisms. The scherzo suffered most, its constricted phrases becoming rushed, the melodies snatched. The same was true of the first movement, whose motif was passed around in a matter-of-fact fashion and was not always fully audible, particularly when passed between the violins. The slow movement was much more emotive, however, and Pierre Lapointe’s viola solo formed a moving and elegiac bridge between the first and second sections, though the climactic point found an increase in tempo, the phrases again squashed as a result.

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