Mendelssohn: String Quartet No 6 in F Minor, Op. 80
Brett Dean: “Eclipse”
Zemlinsky: Quartet No 1 in A Major, Op. 4
After the grand scale concert of the New York Philharmonic in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights last year, this Memorial Day’s celebration was a decidedly more subdued affair with the Escher Quartet at the Advent Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side. This lovely little place of worship first came to my attention when I moved a couple of blocks from it and noticed a poster advertising their “Music Mondays”. I later became more directly acquainted with it through Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts, and last Monday night I finally attended my first “Music Mondays” concert, which also turned out to be the last one of the season. It would have been difficult, however, to ask for better company than the much acclaimed quartet and an eclectic program featuring Mendelssohn, Dean and Zemlinsky.
We started in the company of the most classical of them all with the last major composition of Felix Mendelssohn. Written shortly after his beloved sister Fanny had died, his String Quartet No 6 is a particularly powerful work that beautifully projects the somberness of the circumstance as well as the emotional memories of the happy and sad times they had shared. From the very first note, the Escher Quartet showed impressive assertiveness, making sure that the composer’s trademark intense lyricism brightly shone through, including in the peaceful good-bye.
Inspired by an international crisis during which some boat people from Afghanistan and Iraq were rescued by a Norwegian ship, the Tampa, only to be refused asylum in Australia in 2001, “Eclipse” describes the struggle between political rules and human needs. The flow of its three movements is uninterrupted, which means that on Monday night the listener went from the listless, uncomfortable sounds of the opening movement to the fierce drama of the second section, before a quieter, if not totally happy, end wrapped up the episode. The four musicians joined their fearless forces to produce a jarring account of it, keenly emphasizing the unusual structures and colors.
We went back to more traditional fare with Zemlinsky’s spontaneously engaging yet fundamentally complex Quartet No 1. More popular as a conductor, the Viennese master obviously knew how to put some notes together on paper too. Although widely distinctive themes abound – from pronounced rhythms to simple melodies, from a wild gypsy dance to a gloriously Romantic finale – the solid unity of the whole work makes its density easy to appreciate. Effortlessly negotiating the various twists and turns, the Escher Quartet proved one more time that nothing is too challenging for them and concluded our Memorial Day with a finely crafted and overall brilliant performance.