Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 28
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
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Youthful String Quartet Refreshes Audience at Richardson Auditorium

Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Summer Concerts Series prides itself on bringing new and relatively unknown chamber ensembles to Richardson Auditorium in these warm weeks of June and July. Last Thursday night’s concert of the Escher Quartet was no exception; named after the 20th century Dutch artist M.C. Escher, the quartet has made its way through young artists’ programs to bring their own style and repertoire to the chamber music arena. For Thursday’s program, violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Andrew Janss focused on an “Eastern European” theme, including a piece from the ensemble’s new favorite composer, Czech Alexander von Zemlinsky.

With an ensemble named for M.C. Escher, one might expect the quartet to be innovative, with a bit of a quirky twist to their performance style. What was unique was the quartet’s interest in former Eastern European composers, beginning the night with Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3. In a spoken introduction to the work, first violinist Barnett-Hart described Bartók’s compositional style as imitative of local folk singing, with peasant rhythms and intervals. This piece marked a change in direction for Bartók, and the Escher Quartet brought out the angularity and jaggedness which marked the stylistic change from the rich harmonies of Brahms.

The piece began with a stark dissonance in the cello and viola, with Mr. Barnett-Hart providing the melody. The unisons within the ensemble were clean, and the dry playing style in the first and second violins effective. This was an intent and serious group of players; they did not overtly communicate with one another, but obviously had worked out a system for executing crescendos and decrescendos together through this continuous and dramatic piece, especially in the spider-like closing coda.

The Escher Quartet has been exploring the music of Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose family was Hungarian, but whose life in Vienna bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 3 was concise in an early 20th century style, but was rooted in 18th and 19th century conventions. The Escher Quartet brought out the short intervallic motives clearly, and ended phrases cleanly. Again, the players demonstrated good unisons, with especially precise rhythms from violist Lapointe. Like the Bartók piece, there were no breaks in playing for the instrumentalists, and the quartet brought out a very smooth lushness in the music.

The Escher players returned to the standards to close the concert with Antonin Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, a work which showed the influence of the composer’s time in America. Throughout this piece, the players continued to demonstrate a unified ensemble sound; no one player overpowered another. Mr. Lapointe set the mood in the opening “Allegro” with a quasi-fiddling style, well answered by the first violin. The quartet brought out the shades of the old American West inherent in the music, especially cellist Janss playing in the upper register of his instrument. These four players most likely have played this work before individually, but together, they brought their own refreshing style to the piece.

The Escher Quartet was founded in 2005, but has already held several quartet-in-residence positions and is currently making the rounds of chamber music festivals. The players proved themselves on Thursday night to be a good addition to the Summer Concerts Series, as well as a refreshing component of the chamber concert scene.

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