Escher Quartet, with David Finckel, Flirts with Perfection

“100 Years Concert Series” at Wisconsin Union Theater has another triumph


No one could complain that theWisconsin Union Theater’s “100 Years Concert Series” has lacked for star power: the peerless choristers of Chanticleer, pianist Emanuel Ax and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio have already lent dazzle and artistry to the season. As for the Escher String Quartet (like the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio a part of the David & Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series), they might not have had the same name recognition for local music lovers.

If so, that changed in an instant for the audience in Shannon Hall Saturday night. The ensemble’s opening work was Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1. The first words scribbled in my notepad were “There is the promise of perfection in the very first phrase.” Two hours later, I propose that only the players on stage could reveal what little bobbles or glitches they might be aware of; scarcely a blemish of any kind could be determined by the auditors.

Haydn (and Mozart, perhaps early Beethoven) is a perfect benchmark to measure a quartet’s unanimity of phrasing, articulation, inflection. One of “Papa” Haydn’s (commonly known as “the father of the string quartet”) last quartets, the four movements demand transparency of tone, and flexibility of phrase. That was no issue here for the Escher players: the quartet’s hallmark appears to be an uncanny gift for always sounding like one super instrument that just happens to require four players.

Well, after all, isn’t that the goal of a great ensemble? Of course, but I racked my brain as I listened, trying to recall another occasion when I was so struck by this quality of unification. Over the decades I’ve heard many of the greatest quartets: the Juilliard, Guarneri, Emerson, Orion, Borodin, on and on. Surely those esteemed players must have impressed me in a similar manner over the years, but I cannot be sure that what I heard from the Escher Quartet (pictured above, courtesy of Anna Kariel) has ever been surpassed.

They had no trouble in amping up the overt expression that was mined from the post-Romantic harmonies and forthright passion found in the Quartet in A Minor by Fritz Kreisler. Yes, that Kreisler, the iconic virtuoso almost as famous for his so-called repertoire “discoveries” that he championed as a soloist, only to later reveal his authorship. His only quartet was composed in 1921 — the year after he appeared as soloist in the Wisconsin Union Theater’s inaugural season… Taken as I was by the Escher Quartet’s traversal of this florid work, I couldn’t help but play a little game in my head: if someone were hearing this for the first time, and hadn’t been told who composed it, what guess might they venture? I think Erich Korngold. The point is, if any reader has not heard this work, seek it out; it is nothing like anything you might have heard previously by Kreisler. I had a recording of it some years ago, by the Angeles Quartet (which by the way paired it with Korngold’s String Quartet No. 3).

Still, one major question remained: could the foursome (Adam Barnett-Hart and Brendan Speltz, violins, Pierre LaPointe, viola and Brook Speltz, cello) maintain these sublime heights when adding guest cellist David Finckel for the incomparable String Quintet of Schubert? The question soon proved moot, and really it was no surprise; the quartet has a residency at The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which Finckel and his pianist/wife/co-entrepreneur  Wu Han have directed for some years now.

If the Kreisler was a rarity I was fortunate to already know, the Schubert D. 956 masterpiece is the other end of the spectrum: one of the greatest musical works in any genre. The breadth and scope of the four movements are nothing less than symphonic, and for a composer justly celebrated as a magical melodist, Schubert outdoes himself in the opening movement. Brook Speltz and Finckel seamlessly wove the unforgettable melody the cellos introduce in the first movement, and Finckel was right at home with the group at once (in case you don’t know, Finckel was cellist of the great Emerson Quartet for 34 years). The slow movement is a quarter-hour of hold-your-breath, with the sustained lines gently kissed by pizzicato notes ever so patiently. This was one of those transcendental moments: perfection in the re-creation of a masterpiece in a superb hall — and for an audience that was as quiet as any I can remember in late January in any venue.

Wish you had been there? Well, mark your calendars for March 5, when a foursome from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — including Finckel and Wu Han, will perform, and she will stay in town for an appearance with the UW Symphony Orchestra on March 7.

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