After the first of their three concerts to celebrate Britten’s centenary at the Lincoln Center, the Escher String Quartet has received an excellent review from the New York Times:

‘When it came to his contemporaries Benjamin Britten could be prickly, refusing to be drafted into an avant-garde whose music was of no practical use to the public. Yet for all his loyalty to classical forms and tonal harmonies, the same prickliness injects a certain asperity into even his most lyrical moments. Thursday night’s performance of Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 by the formidable Escher String Quartet brought out the autumnal beauty and structural rigor in the chamber music of that British composer, still best known for his operas. It was the first of three concerts presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to celebrate the 2013 Britten centenary.

The programs, which place each of Britten’s three string quartets into context, were designed by the members of the Escher String Quartet with the same penetrating intelligence and curiosity that informs their playing. Thursday’s concert was devoted to Quartet No. 2, which was written in 1945 on the heels of Britten’s performances at the newly liberated concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and has the shock of that experience written into its bones. But the quartet is also a homage to Purcell, ending with a “Chacony,” a series of variations over a repeated bass line, that reveals Britten’s affinity with that English Baroque composer.

The ensemble opened with Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s own “Chacony in G minor” that emphasizes the sober dignity of the work with a unified, vibrato-rich sound. The ensuing Britten quartet drew much of its propulsive dynamic from the way that unity was exploded and reconfigured, with demanding solo passages thrusting individual players into the limelight. The violist Pierre Lapointe impressed with his distinct tart sound, as did the cellist Dane Johansen, whose generous playing breathed warmth into the performance.

The second half of the program paired Beethoven’s Opus 132 with a madrigal and a motet by Gesualdo, both arranged for string quartet by Mr. Lapointe. The juxtaposition drew an arc between the searching harmonies of Gesualdo, an Italian Renaissance composer, and those of Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanks From a Convalescent to the Divinity.” Both took their power from the way the opening and closing harmonies evoke the human breath. The Escher quartet offered an unhurried yet intense interpretation of Beethoven’s slow movement that appeared nourished by the Gesualdo. For the last movement the players threw off any reverential scruples, bringing a refreshingly rough, outdoorsy energy to the finale.

For the performance in the intimate Rose Rehearsal Studio at Lincoln Center the audience surrounded the quartet in concentric circles with the front row almost within page-turning distance. That was close enough, as Wu Han, one of the artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society, said in her introduction, to breathe in the rosin dust released from the performers’ bows and to become participants in the music making.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Britten celebration continues on Feb. 28 and May 2, with concerts streamed live online; (212) 875-5788;’

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, 28th October 2012

New York Times