Maverick Concerts is the oldest continuous chamber music festival in America, taking its name from a utopian art colony established in 1905. The festival’s namesake was part of a movement that transformed Woodstock, a small town in the Catskill Mountains, into something akin to a summer cultural Mecca. Founded in 1916 by Hervey White, the festival is still taking place in its original, barn-like structure, placed in the middle of the forest a few miles away from Woodstock. The hall, with its tall gambrel roof and a timber frame to which sheaths of planks are nailed directly, has a wonderfully warm acoustic, well suited for the chamber ensembles visiting every Sunday afternoon from June to September.

The guests for the second weekend of the 102nd season were the members of the Escher Quartet. Renowned for exploring sonorities that go beyond the generally accepted limits of classical music, they proposed here a repertoire that wasn’t necessarily off the beaten path but surely didn’t comprise pieces standardly performed.

Believed for a long time to be dated much later, Schubert’s String Quartet No. 10, D. 87 was actually composed in 1813 for one of the artist’s family’s private musical gatherings. In this homotonal, E-flat Major work, the 16-year-old composer demonstrates his growing ability to master the Classical idiom but not much more. Comparing this opus to his glorious later quartets, one can identify more characteristics that will be missing – a certain Haydnesque rusticity – than premonitory elements. There is certainly very little here related to Schubert’s extraordinary ability to substitute an instrument for a lied singing voice. Under these circumstances, there is only so much that the Eschers could do to make this lightweight music sound “interesting”. Their playing was stylish and graceful, with lovely blended tone. The interpreters tried to imbue the music with a certain restlessness, capturing the composer’s impatience and ambition. They brought forward a mercurial wit in the Scherzo and tried to give the Finale’s music enough time to breathe so that details could be properly heard.

If there was a piece on the program that could invoke the name of M.C. Escher, the ensemble’s “patron saint”, that was Bartók’s Third Quartet. Similar to Escher, Bartók had a passion for mathematical games and uncommon structures. Like the Dutch graphical artist, he could build an innovative entity that transcended the characteristics of its individual components. Placed in the center of Bartók’s six quartets series, the Third is the most tightly knit, with limited thematic material and no interruptions between the parts. The music in the third and fourth movements approximately mirrors the intertwining between wisps of traditional Hungarian tunes and daring dissonances in the first and second. The Escher Quartet made the difficult music sound easy, integrating odd sound effects – sul ponticello and col legno playing – into a perfectly balanced whole. Delicately colored textures were almost transparent. The intricate contrapuntal writing, with rapid changes from one “voice” to the next, asks for a faultless cooperation between instrumentalists, and this was exactly the case here.

The five movements of SibeliusString Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56, the only significant chamber music work he composed after 1900, are also thematically interrelated, but the connections are superficial, each part fully maintaining its individual character. The quartet’s nickname – Intimate Voices – comes from the words, never explained, that the composer inscribed on top of three out-of-key chords – played here with outstanding delicacy – placed near the beginning of the Adagio di molto. This central movement is an introspective, spaciously unfolding lament, composed by someone having serious reasons to confront his own mortality at the time. The music is far from expressing any self-pity and the Eschers’ interpretation never lacked an underlying tension, with Brook Speltz’s soulful cello playing symbolizing a clinging optimism. The interpreters also succeeded in bringing to life the contradictory nature of the next movement, Allegretto (ma pesante), balancing nimble and ponderous passages. At points, the music seems to evoke a full string orchestra. The members of the quartet played it with the same frantic energy that was also palpable in their version of the rousing Finale.

Founded in 2005, the Escher Quartet has evolved into one of the major string quartets playing today. Any chance to attend one of their performances should not be missed.

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