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Escher String Quartet shines in Northampton concert

The concert sponsored by the Smith College Music Department and Music in Deerfield on Saturday introduced another quartet new to Northampton, the second in the current season. The Escher String Quartet is young and has achieved a distinguished reputation in its five years of performance.

Its name is inspired by the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and draws inspiration from his “method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole,” according to the group’s website, www.escherquartet.com. This definition of how a string quartet works was brilliantly realized in this concert at Sweeney Concert Hall at Smith College.

There was competition for an audience Saturday, including the annual performance of “The Messiah” by the Arcadia Players, to say nothing of end-of-semester exams for college students.

As State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, observed in her remarks before the concert, “There were a lot of grey heads” in the audience. Yet this was music that would have rewarded a young audience as much as it did those who were present.

The quartet immediately established its rapport with the audience with a sparkling performance of Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, a favorite with amateur groups and one that shows Mozart at his most assured. It demands individual virtuosity, especially from the first violin (Adam Barnett-Hart), but absolute unity, shown from the opening unison passage.

The rich tone of the gifted viola-player and cellist (respectively Pierre Lapointe and Dane Johansen) was clearly apparent and anticipated their splendid playing in the following works. The last movement was taken at a very lively pace, which would have derailed most amateur quartets.

Aaron Boyd (the second violinist) introduced Benjamin Britten’s Third String Quartet eloquently, acknowledging that it is hard to follow Mozart with Britten. Britten was already a dying man in 1975, after a difficult heart operation and a stroke that allowed him to compose only for a short time each day.

The subtitle to the quartet’s last movement, “La Serenissima,” announces its connection to Venice, the setting for Britten’s last opera, “Death in Venice” (first performed in 1973), itself based on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, “Der Tod in Venedig” (“Death in Venice”).

The quartet’s music, then, has death as its motif, with Britten’s own farewell to music and to life. After Mozart’s exhilarating music, Britten’s austerity could have been forbidding. Yet the quartet played with love and intensity that were at times overwhelming. Especially remarkable were the second movement, in which the first violin’s solo explored the highest limits of the instrument’s range, and the final movement, in which the cello kept up a steady ground bass for the other instruments to play their variations on the implications of “La Serenissima.” This was a moving performance of difficult and profound music.

The last part of the program was devoted to Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet, the last of the four great quartets (for the fifth and final work in the series is lighter in tone) in which he explored the most sublime regions of musical imagination. Just as Britten took leave of his creative life, so Beethoven rose to heights almost beyond human comprehension as he approached death.

The Escher quartet took us with mastery to Beethoven’s most demanding limits — vigorous in the outer movements, and with profound yet disciplined emotion in the huge slow movement, played, as Beethoven instructed, “mit innigster Empfindung,” (“with the most intimate feeling”), an appropriate finale to a distinguished evening’s music.

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