The Escher Quartet’s Intriguing Programme Mixes the ‘Classical’ and the ‘Popular’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Herrmann, Korngold, Gershwin, Ravel: Escher Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart & Danbi Um [violins], Pierre Lapointe [viola], Brook Speltz [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 3.12.2018. (CS)

Escher Quartet (c) Sarah Skinner
Escher Quartet (c) Sarah Skinner

HerrmannPsycho Suite for Strings
Korngold – String Quartet No.3 in D Op.34
Ravel – String Quartet in F

‘Film music offers the serious composer what has been lacking since the eighteenth-century – a reasonable commercial outlet for his activities, comparable to the ‘occasional’ music which the greatest classical composers did not despise to write.’

The words of Constant Lambert surely rang true for many ‘big names’ of the twentieth century – Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Copland among others – as well as for the first two composers featured in this ‘off-the-beaten-track’ programme presented by the New York-based Escher Quartet at Wigmore Hall: Bernard Herrmann and Erich Korngold.

Alongside his conducting activities – initially in the US with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and latterly in England as a guest conductor with ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Herrmann was a composer of chamber and concert works.  But it was his ‘second career’ as a composer of film scores that established Herrmann in the public eye, and it has been the suites that he drew from those scores that have appeared more frequently in the concert hall.  His first film score was for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and nearly fifty more followed.  His collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock began in 1955 when Herrmann wrote the score for The Trouble with Harry, and it was the music that he composed in 1960 for Hitchcock’s Psycho that became his most celebrated score.

Psycho relied upon the viewer’s certainty that something terrible would happen, the perceived threat, or promise, of violence being aurally articulated by the subtly shifting ostinatos of Herrmann’s score.  Well, it’s hard to recreate the terrifying anticipation of the famous shower-scene – which Hitchcock had originally wanted silent – in the genteel setting of Wigmore Hall and there was something a little incongruous about the juxtaposition of the disturbing sound-world of the Psycho Suite and the culture and comforts of the Hall.  Similarly, the meticulous precision of the Escher Quartet’s insistent stabbing punctuations, cleanly slicing bows, high glissandi, delicate fragmentations and brief melodic whispers seemed strangely at odds with the music’s innate nihilism.  Who knew that splintering dissonances and bridge-breaking bow-stabs could sound so beautiful?

That said, one could not but admire the Escher’s power, accuracy and coloristic range.  It might seem surprising that Herrmann elected to limit his instrumental palette to strings alone, thereby eschewing the panoply of stock orchestral suspense-horror effects that lay in Hollywood’s arsenal, but as Rimsky-Korsakov had noted in his treatise on orchestration, ‘String instruments possess more ways of producing sound than any other orchestral group.  They can pass, better than other instruments, from one shade of expression to another, the varieties being of an infinite number’ – and we did indeed hear an infinite number of them here.  I wasn’t convinced, though, that the alternating timbres generated sufficient tension.  For example, the languidness of the homophonic chordal episodes should surely feel less like a point of rest than a tight holding of one’s breath before the inevitable and unstoppable horror is unleashed.

The Escher Quartet didn’t quite ‘let rip’, so to speak.  Perhaps the fairly sparse scoring of Richard Birchall’s transcription encouraged restraint.  Whatever, there was certainly a wonderful cleanness to the Escher’s sound, alongside consummate control of the ensemble dialogues and flawless intonation: a unison passage for viola and cello truly sounded like a single voice.  The Quartet’s name, which suggests a shared aesthetic with the Dutch graphic artist – ‘the interplay between individual components working together to form a whole’ – is clearly apposite.

Herrmann once remarked that ‘the twenty-first century won’t be interested in our painting, our literature or our architecture so much as in our motion pictures, because the motion picture is the first truly original art form of the twentieth century.  Real composers welcome any opportunity to write music and any composer who disdains writing music for films, radio or television, or any other medium, is doomed to oblivion.’  A hyperbolic prediction, perhaps, and one wonders whether Erich Korngold, who was one of the first composers of international renown to write for the screen, would have agreed with its sentiments.  For, after a twelve-career with Warner Bros., during which he played a significant part in establishing the ‘classic’ Hollywood film-score idiom, Korngold became disillusioned with Hollywood and was keen to return to composing for the stage and concert hall, and in December 1944 he presented his wife with the manuscript of his Third String Quartet, and the Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto followed shortly after.

However, like so many of Korngold’s concert works, the Third Quartet integrates some music from his film scores, the third movement making use of music from The Sea Wolf, the trio of the scherzo drawing on Between Two Worlds, and a quotation from Devotion being incorporated into the finale.  Despite the apparent eclecticism, the Third Quartet has a strong cohesiveness, and the Escher Quartet emphasised the seamlessness of its idiom, as well as its lyric power and passion.

The two violinists swapped places for this work, which offered us an opportunity to enjoy Danbi Um’s powerful, razor-edged precision as the first violin part travelled to the stratosphere, with Adam Barnett-Hart swapping the slicing shrieks of Herrmann for Korngold’s vigorous inner-voice counterpoint.  Indeed, the quartet is striking for the way its material is so frequently generated by dynamic contrapuntal interplay, and the evenness and balance within the ensemble played a considerable part in creating a sense of natural unfolding, even though Korngold’s harmonies are at times uneasy and extended melodising rare.

This organic development was present from the opening of the Allegro Molto, the three upper voices being eventually joined by the cello, as the gradually expanding range, register and roving suggested the music’s innate adventurous and ambition.  From small fragments great rhythmic fire was generated but in the following Scherzo it was the Escher’s incisive delicacy and control that was most impressive, the coolness of the scherzo being tempered by the warm beauty of Pierre Lapointe’s rhapsodic film-derived trio theme.  The folk-like Sostenuto presented an ear-catching array of textures and timbres, while, after a short reflective introduction, the Finale danced away in a high-spirited waltz.  The virtuosic demands were immaculately negotiated, octave-unison passages were perfectly tuned, and the Escher Quartet effected the transitions between the waltzlike and lyrical episodes seamlessly.

The second part of the concert also brought together the ‘classical’ and the ‘popular’, beginning with a relaxed stroll through the gentle variations of Gershwin’s charming Lullaby for strings which, composed in 1919-20, suggests that the young composer had a good command of the string quartet idiom.  A few years later, Gershwin crossed paths with Maurice Ravel, at the French composer’s 53rd birthday party on 7th March 1928, when Ravel was in the US for a four-month concert tour.  The two men expressed mutual admiration: Ravel declared himself ‘enchanted’ by Gershwin’s musical Funny Face; Gershwin asked the elder composer for lessons.  His request was declined, but later that month Ravel published an essay in Musical Digest in which he expressed his interest in jazz: ‘the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves.  I have heard some of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.’

While Ravel’s interest in jazz finds obvious expression in works such as the Piano Concerto and Second Violin Sonata, the String Quartet seems more indebted to European classicism, in its formal structure at least, while if any ‘outside’ influence is detectable in the very ‘French’ musical language and idiom, then it might be that of the Javanese gamelan or the guitars of Ravel’s Basque heritage.

Indeed, coolness, balance and restraint – rather than the freedom, relaxation and riskiness of jazz – characterised the Escher Quartet’s approach, as they eschewed the rich, strong lyrical sound-world that they had created in Korngold’s quartet for a slighter, leaner tone.  The first movement Allegro moderato was elegance defined, the melodies beautifully sculpted, the conversations fluid, graceful and urbane.  The Très doux episode was indeed ‘sweet’, but gently fragranced and slightly distanced, as if delicately held in silver sugar-tongs.  However, when we reached the Assez vif; Très rythmé I began to wish for a bit more ‘edginess’ to temper the prevailing elegance: the pizzicato was impressively focused and crisply projected, the tight rhythms knotted together with exactitude, but I missed the scent of spontaneity that surely breezes through the movement and the displaced accents of the perfectly executed cross-rhythms didn’t make my toes tap to an Iberian lilt – such as might have made for greater contrast with the beautifully phrased, languorous central episode.  The Très lent did touch my heart, though; the contrast between cellist Brook Speltz’s sensuous melodising and the delicacy of the paired violins conjured a nocturnal dreaminess out of which the Finale bounded – Vif certainly, but agité?  I’d have like a little more freedom, even abandon.

When Herrmann worked as a director of radio programmes at the Columbia Broadcasting System, he won awards for unconventional programming which introduced new works – including such rarities as symphonic works by Goetz, Raff and Gade – to American audiences.  He would surely have approved of the Escher Quartet’s programme at Wigmore Hall.  In her 2000 book, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, Susan McClary declares that ‘We have not even begun to tell the history of twentieth-century music’ – the Escher Quartet made me think that McClary might just be right.

Claire Seymour

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