Dallas — For the connoisseur of chamber music, any performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings is an event—even moreso if the performance brings together two outstanding quartets, as was the case on Jan. 28 at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus, in a concert presented by the Dallas Chamber Music Society.
The Escher String Quartet, named for 20th-century Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, was founded a little over decade ago at the Manhattan School of Music, and currently serves as quartet in residence at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. The even younger Schumann Quartett includes three German brothers who happen to be named Schumann. The two ensembles performed separately on the first half of the program and came together after intermission for the Mendelssohn work.
In their separate performances, each quartet drew on the music of their respective homelands. Up first, the Schumann Quartet presented Beethoven’s generally cheerful Quartet in B-flat from Opus 18 with energetic precision (and a bit of panache in the emphatic opening downbow flourish from cellist Mark Schumann); the Adagio showed off first violin Erik Schumann in the lilting melody, wafting over a constantly varied accompaniment from the other musicians, aimed toward the arrestingly whispered final pizzicato of the movement. The ensemble’s combination of precision and vitality continued through the sometimes-whimsical capriciousness of the Scherzo before landing in the deeper emotions of the fourth and final movement, with its alternation of Malinconia (“melancholy”) and Allegretto.
The Escher Quartet followed up with the Barber’s Quartet of 1936, the middle Adagio movement of which became, in its transcription for full string orchestra as the Adagio for Strings, one of the most often performed works by any American composer. The entire work calls for a combination of a dark tone and an almost vocal quality from the musicians, which the musicians of the Escher Quartet provided handsomely. Although Pennsylvania-born Barber never identified as an Americanist or national composer along the lines of his contemporary Aaron Copland, his music always contains a broad, open-air quality that is uniquely and unmistakably American, and that belongs to American musicians in the same way that British, French, or Russian belongs uniquely to the musicians of those countries.
After these very different performances of German classicism and 20th-century American neo-romanticism, the two groups came together for a remarkably unified take on the Mendelssohn Octet. Here, the teenaged Mendelssohn achieved an unsurpassed marriage of classical form, early romantic emotion, and youthful exuberance; these two relatively young ensembles, with the Escher’s first violin Adam Barnett-Hart acting as leader, navigated the four-movement work’s endless array of joyful intricacies with a perfect controlled energy. The breathtaking unison scale that closes the development of the first movement epitomized the performance for this listener, as these two very different quartets came together in a magical unity of purpose. More magic emerged in the reflective dialogue of the Andante, followed by the delicate vivacity of the Scherzo, akin to the Fairy music of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The magnificently realized, ever-so-subtle accelerando in the coda of the final movement brought the memorable, often amazing collaboration to a close.