The Escher Quartet Plays Barber & Ives

BIS-2360 cover

BARBER: String Quartet in b min. String Quartet in b min: Original last movement. IVES: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. A Set of Three Short Pieces: Scherzo, “Holding Your Own” / Escher String Quartet / Bis SACD-2360

The Escher String Quartet is a New York-based group that plays in the brisk, no-nonsense style pioneered by the Stuyvesant Quartet of the 1940s and ‘50s, revived in our time by the Alban Berg Quartet and continued by the Emerson Quartet, and it speaks volumes for the state of the recording industry today that they are featured here by a Swedish record label. But no matter, for it is their quality of playing that is under review here and that is first-rate from a technical standpoint.

Also moot for the purposes of this review is whether or not their style would be appropriate for all manner of string quartets, for they are playing the music of two early 20th-century American modernists. Samuel Barber, of course, was not nearly as edgy, idiosyncratic or provocative as Charles Ives, but his lone string quartet, written in 1935-36, remains a now-and-then favorite of many quartets; and of course, the slow second movement was later arranged for full orchestra and has found fame as his best-known piece, the Adagio for Strings, which received its world premiere by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The Escher Quartet plays this with a lovely legato and very light string vibrato, which works exceptionally well for this piece.

The final version of the third and last movement, which runs only 2:18, is followed by the original 1936 finale, which runs 5:28. But it’s not just the length that’s different; so too are the themes as well as the tempo, a bit slower than the revised version. Speaking personally, I thought this an effective third movement which could then be followed by the revised version as a fourth movement, but that of course is just my opinion.

Ives’ First Quartet, subtitled “From the Salvation Army (A Revival of Service),” was written between 1898 and 1909. Those familiar with the composer’s more bitonal works may be quite surprised by this piece’s tonal bias. I found it a good piece but more formulaic than his later, more mature works. It shows a young composer trying to find a style of his own within the then-prescribed limits of how far a composer could go within the tonal idiom; in short, it’s a good piece but not a great one, and not just because it is tonal. There are moments here and there where his originality comes forward, but he just as quickly leaves them to return to a more “regular” way of writing. The second movement sounds the most like an American folk song. The quartet remained in three movements until 1961, when Ives pianist-scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick “persuaded editors to reinstate the fugue and to publish the quartet as a four-movement work.” This reinstated final movement is clearly the most complex and interesting part of it.

This is followed by a Scherzo for quartet entitled “Holding Your Own,” This is written in Ives’ more familiar atonal style, and contains several quotes from such famous American tunes as “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” all suitably disguised and reharmonized.

The second quartet was described by the composer as a conversation between four men “who converse, discuss, argue (in re ‘Politick’), fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!” Yet much of it, particularly the first movement, is slow and moody, not fast, loud and argumentative, and despite the clashing harmonies it is really quite original and fascinating to listen to. By the middle of the first movement, when the tempo picks up, one of the first things you hear is Emmett’s familiar song Dixie, but the quote doesn’t last long and the “four men” are soon back to arguing among themselves, this time more vociferously.

Yet it’s in the second movement that the verbal fight really breaks out, punctuated by moments (I would suppose) of calm reasoning. One of the things I really liked about this movement was Ives’ way of mixing in gritty counterpoint along with quotes of tunes like “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” as the musical argument continued. Yet if anything, it is the long third movement, “The Call of the Mountains,” where things get really gritty in a complex way. This is really an ingenious and fascinating quartet, and the Eschers play it superbly.

An outstanding recording, then, both artistically and sonically.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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