The Escher Quartet’s Scintillating Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets Nos. 5 & 6; Capriccio in E min., Op. 81 No. 3; Fugue in E-flat, Op. 81 No. 4 / Escher String Quartet / Bis 2160 (SACD)

This is the third and final CD of the Escher String Quartet’s series of the complete Mendelssohn Quartets, which includes the unnumbered E-flat Major quartet on the first disc and, here, the Capriccio in E minor and Fugue in E-flat major, which together make a sort of quartet of their own. At first hearing, in the opening “Allegro vivace” of Quartet No. 5, I was just a bit worried about how they would respond to the slow movement of this work and, more importantly, to the tragedy that Mendelssohn wrote into the Sixth Quartet, but I shouldn’t have worried. The Eschers have taken painstaking care to ensure that they can differentiate between the surface writing of the fifth quartet and the almost biting pain written into the sixth. True, in both quartets they play with that fast and straightforward style that has become de rigeur among string quartets ever since the Alban Berg Quartet made it fashionable in the 1970s (although, for those of us with long enough memories, it was really th Heifetz-Piatagorsky Quartet of the 1960s that pioneered this style), but at least they always play with commitment and, thank goodness, they don’t play with that awful straight tone that ruins so many modern recordings.

My only wish would have been for a few moments of rubato to offset their headlong rush in the first movement of the latter quartet; towards the end, their playing was almost, but not quite, on a pace to win the Indianapolis 500 (“And there goes car number three, four, five…a wreck! A wreck, and the car is spinning out of control, up to the fence, around the fence, I hope he doesn’t hit that fence…he hit it!”). Their tempo for the second-movement “Allegro assai” was but a shade slower than the opening “Allegro vivace,” but once again, when they came to the “Adagio,” they not only relaxed their taut style but actually introduced moments of relaxation and portamento, which helped them produce a moving performance.

I was particularly impressed not by their unanimity of musical thought—all great string quartets reach that goal in practice sessions—but rather by their unanimity of sound. In some string quartets I’ve heard, one of the four instruments seems to have a lusher tone or slightly stronger bow attack that makes them stand out, just a bit, from the others, but the Eschers have achieved a near-perfect sound balance, and that in itself is difficult. Each of them uses a fast, tight vibrato, and each of them has a somewhat bright sound profile, which makes their success in the slow movements all the more impressive. More interestingly was the way in which they have perfected a “group nuance” whenever such is called for; they almost breathe together and can shade and color a note or phrase, when they choose to do so, on a dime. This was especially apparent in the last movement of the Quartet No. 6, one of Mendelssohn’s most pained and tragic utterances, albeit one written at a fast tempo.For once, the Eschers understood the nature of the music’s meaning and did not try to beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for an inside position on the track. Their stabbing attacks fully bring out the depth of pain that Mendelssohn felt for his beloved sister Fanny when he wrote this quartet, and it shows.

I was generally very impressed with this CD. I can’t project whether or not the Eschers would be as successful in the quartets of Beethoven or Brahms as they are here, in the more classically-styled music of Mendelssohn, but this is certainly one of the best recordings of these works.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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