Top: Dover String Quartet; bottom: Escher String Quartet. (composite image courtesy of Spivey Hall)

Review: Dover & Escher String Quartets open new Spivey Hall season

Mark Gresham | 01 OCT 2019

On Sunday afternoon the Dover and Escher String Quartets joined forces to perform a program of music by Haydn, Hindemith and Mendelssohn at Spivey Hall, the opening concert of the esteemed venue’s 2019-20 concert season.

The Escher Quartet (violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Brendan Speltz, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Brook Speltz) took the stage first to perform Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in G major, Op. 77 No. 1 (1799). It was a bright, forward-moving performance performance that rode of on the front edge of tempo.

Escher emphasized the contrasts inherent in the work. Although as Haydn matured he tended to give each part of the quartet more equal weight, nevertheless there is a lot of prominence given the first violin part, especially in the first two movements: the first with a crisp dotted march theme, the second an Adagio with a principal theme inspired by elements of the first movement. The third is a Menuetto in name only, foreshadowing the scherzos of Beethoven, whose earliest string quartets were written around the same time (between 1798 and 1800). That and the concluding movement both took the first violin part to stratospheric heights at times — as far as the sixth ledger line D above the staff.

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The Dover Quartet (violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw) followed with Paul Hindemith’s Quartet No. 3, Op. 22 (1921), as listed in the program, although these days it is regarded as his Quartet No. 4 due to a re-numbering of the quartets.

Hindemith was one of the top violists of his generation and also played violin professionally. This particular quartet was written the same year he founded the Amir Quartet, for which he was violist. It is a dark, complex, tight-knit work that is a revelation if you are only familiar with his later, more familiar orchestral works like Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber or his many pieces of gebrauchsmusik (a word he actually despised).

Around the time he composed this quartet Hindemith became a major advocate of the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) movement. His music owes far more to J.S. Bach than its does to Haydn or  Beethoven. This is a work that requires some deliberate listening on the part of the audience, but Dover Quartet gave it a powerful, compelling performance for those willing to invest their ears and minds in the experience.

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After intermission, the two ensembles came together to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20. Its most important to note that the work is a genuine octet and not a double quartet, so it was of interest to see how these two groups of slightly different character would meld their sounds.

They proved compatible, aided by three factors: both ensembles are both credibly “old fashioned” string quartets in terms of performance practice (the term “old fashioned” being offered by Dover’s first violinist Joel Link, a native of Cartersville, Georgia, after the concert); Mendelssohn’s Octet is a familiar piece of core chamber repertoire; and it is easier to get two established quartets on the same page, musically, than eight otherwise unrelated performers. Together the Escher and Dover musicians gave the familiar Octet its due in an energized, exciting performance to close the program. ■