Escher String Quartet

Adam Barnett-Hart, violin
Aaron Boyd, violin
Pierre Lapointe, viola
Dane Johansen, cello

Sunday, July 28, 2013, 4 pm

“Britten in Britain”


String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 83 (1918)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

Allegro moderato
Piacevole (poco andante)
Allegro molto

String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, “Death in Venice” (1975) Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)

BurlesqueRecitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima)


Music from Nine Movements for String Quartet (1991–1996)
Sir Harrison Birtwhistle (b. 1934)

Fantasia 1
Frieze 2
Fantasia 4

String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135 (1826)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Grave ma non troppo tratto — Allegro


next week

Saturday, August 3, 11 am
Young People’s Concert

Marc Black, vocals and guitar

Admission is free for all young people under 16.
These wonderful concerts, long a Maverick tradition,
are designed for enjoyment by school-age children.
Adults pay $5 each.

Saturday, August 3, 6:30 pm
Perry Beekman,
guitar and vocals,
with Peter Tomlinson, piano,
and Lou Pappas, bass

Songs of Rodgers and Hart

Sunday, August 4, 4 pm
The Leipzig String Quartet

Music of Beethoven, Lutosławski, and Franck


Program Notes © 2013 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


The Escher String Quartet has received acclaim for its
individual sound, inspired artistic decisions, and unique cohesiveness. Championed by members of the Emerson String Quartet, the group was proud to be BBC New Generation Artists for 2010–2012. Having completed a three-year residency as artists of Lincoln Center's CMS Two program, the ensemble has already performed at prestigious venues and festivals around the world including Alice Tully Hall, the 92nd Street Y, and Symphony Space in New York, the Kennedy Center, the Louvre, major festivals including Ravinia, Caramoor, Music@Menlo, West Cork, Wigmore Hall, and the City of London Festival, as well as a tour of China that included Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou.

Within months of its inception in 2005, the Escher String Quartet was invited by both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman to be the quartet-in-residence at each artist’s summer festival: the Young Artists Program at Canada’s National Arts Centre and the Perlman Chamber Music Program on Shelter Island, NY. The Eschers have since collaborated with artists such as Andrés Diaz, Lawrence Dutton, Kurt Elling, David Finckel, Leon Fleisher, Vadim Gluzman, Benjamin Grosvenor, Wu Han, Gary Hoffman, Joseph Kalichstein, David Shifrin, and Joseph Silverstein. In August 2012, the quartet gave their BBC Proms debut, performing Hugh Wood’s String Quartet No. 4.

In 2012–2013, the Escher Quartet completed their final BBC New Generation Artists recording project in London, and they returned to the Wigmore Hall following their successful February 2012 debut there. They have continued their relationship with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, curating and performing a series of concerts celebrating the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. Other highlights of the 2012–2013 season included the Library of Congress, the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, the prestigious Agence de Concerts et Spectacles Cæcilia in Geneva, their Austrian debut in Eisenstadt, and concerts at several UK festivals including Paxton and Gregynog.

Recent recorded releases include the complete quartets of Alexander Zemlinsky on Naxos. Other recordings include the Amy Beach Piano Quintet with Anne-Marie McDermott (CMS Studio Recordings) and Stony Brook Soundings Vol. 1 (Bridge Records), which features the quartet in the premiere recordings of five new works.

The Escher String Quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and draws inspiration from the artist’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole.





Sir Edward Elgar was largely self-taught, but became a teacher of piano and violin, a university professor, a noted conductor, and the greatest English composer of the age. His wife, Alice, a published novelist, moved them away from the stress of city life to the countryside in Sussex, where he composed his great chamber works, including the String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 83.

The opening Allegro moderato is in an unrelenting E minor, but the meter is a surprising dance tempo of 12/8. Part of the reason the couple moved to Sussex was Elgar’s dismay and grief at the aftermath of the Great War, and he seems to have put that energy into this quartet. The fast section is a danse macabre, while the slower passages seem like laments.

Lady Elgar famously described the middle movement—Piacevole (poco andante)—as “captured sunshine.” The triple meter (now 3/8) and the C-major key are here more suitable for the lighter mood (piacevole means “pleasantly”). But even in the midst of all this serenity and good cheer, a darker mood insinuates itself briefly, before the gentle song returns to close out the movement.

The final movement (Allegro molto) takes the key back to minor, but instead of hopeless passivity the music is full of forward momentum. The music has done its job, and gotten us through the grieving process.

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, "Death in Venice," Op. 87, was his last string quartet, and in fact his last major composition, written the year before he died. He had undergone two major operations on his heart, and had suffered a stroke during the second operation. Although he was weak and frail, he continued to compose prolifically. He told music writer Hans Keller about the difficulty of moving his arm across the large page of a full orchestral score, and Keller responded that a page with just four staves (for four instruments) would be easier. Shortly thereafter, Britten began work on his Third String Quartet, which he dedicated to Keller.

The first movement is titled Duets, and it explores all the possible permutations of a string quartet taken two voices at a time, with simple accompaniment. The second movement is an Ostinato (a musical phrase that is repeated over and over), a sharp declaration of even notes offered by one or more instruments. Solo is a violin cadenza, accompanied first by a slow cello line, then by sparse pizzicatos (plucked notes) and glissandos (slides), and finally by eerie harmonics. The short Burlesque uses imitative entries, as in a fugue, and playful bounces and slides to create a carnival atmosphere with both cheerful and ominous aspects.

Britten uses the Passacaglia form, with its walking bass theme, for his finale. He starts the movement with a cello Recitative. In his final opera Death in Venice (based on Thomas Mann’s novella about a writer who is obsessed with a young boy), Britten had, for the first time in his career, included homosexuality as a theme in his work. The subtitle La Serenissima refers to an old name for the city of Venice, as well as his own serene acceptance of the end of life.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle is considered by many to be today’s leading contemporary British composer. His music is atonal, dissonant, and difficult to characterize, since he follows no particular school. Nine Movements for String Quartet was written as part of a larger work, Pulse Shadows, a series of vocal and instrumental pieces based on the poetry of the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan. Birtwistle uses special string techniques to create unusual sounds: pizzicato, harmonics with their flutelike, silvery tone, quivering tremolos, sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge), and straight tone played without vibrato. His goal is not the warm, round sonority sought by most classical composers, but rather a spare, harsh tone. The music is unique and unusual, but Birtwistle considers it the logical result of the progress of Western musical evolution.

Fantasia 1 offers thick layers of harsh, dissonant chords followed by spare combinations of notes. Frieze 2 starts with low staccato phrases, then higher, more legato lines, and all four instruments in tremolo (fast bowing on each note). In Fantasia 4, slow chords approach consonance (the opposite of dissonance). The cello makes a strong statement, and all the instruments play sul ponticello.

The String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, is the last string quartet Beethoven wrote. In this work, after the innovation and experimentation of many of his late quartets, Beethoven turns back to the norms of Classical style.

The first movement (Allegretto) starts with a cheery theme decorated with trills. This theme is tossed back and forth among the instruments, played in unison, put into imitative counterpoint, and punctuated with rests—the variety of techniques used extensively by Haydn to give his music a light, airy feeling. The second theme is in even notes, and fits nicely with the main subject.

The second movement (Vivace) is the scherzo, with the usual repeats—those repeats that Beethoven had begun to leave out of his late quartets, preferring instead to compose every single note to his specific expressive needs. Staccatos and cross accents make this a lively dance. And just in case we were missing the humor (scherzo, after all, means “joke”), Beethoven gives the lower three voices an ostinato figure (a repeated pattern of, in this case, five notes) that goes on for forty-seven measures, while the first violin plays in the stratosphere.

In the third movement (Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo—fairly slow, singing, and calm), a gentle song is played through four times, in a sort of theme and variations. First the violin takes the solo; then all four play together, even more slowly, with lush harmonies; then the violin and cello sing in dialogue; and finally, the violin plays a decorated version of the song, the other instruments accompanying with arpeggios and subdued syncopation.

Before the start of the finale (Grave ma non troppo tratto—slow, but not too drawn out), Beethoven appended the words Der schwer gefasste Entschluss—“The difficult decision,” along with the notes of the movement’s theme and the lyrics “Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” (“Must it be? It must! It must!”). If this were a different quartet, it would be reasonable to see this as one of Beethoven’s confrontations with destiny. But in this unusual quartet, we have to wonder. We know that Beethoven wrote a comic canon using these words, so this might reflect a cheery nonchalance rather than a deep spiritual quest for answers. Despite his troubles, despite his expressions of angst, Beethoven was also able to see the lighter side of his situation, and even to make fun of his own seriousness. Beethoven told his publisher that this would be his last quartet, so this—whether fatalistic or humorous—was apparently his final word on the subject of life.


All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at Program Notes © 2013 by Miriam Villchur Berg