Thursday 17 April 2014

Benjamin Grosvenor and the Escher String Quartet

Benjamin Grosvenor -
Benjamin Grosvenor -
Temple Music Foundation's concert season continued on 15 April with a concert in Middle Temple Hall from the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and the Escher String Quartet from America. Grosvenor played piano solos by Mendelssohn, Schubert and Liszt, whilst the quartet played Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E flat major Op.12, then the five performers came together for a performance of Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A major Op.81

Escher String Quartet - Photo Credit: Laura Rose
Escher String Quartet
Photo Credit: Laura Rose
The Escher String Quartet are Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd, Pierre Lapointe and Dane Johansen. The quartet is based in New York, and was founded in 2005, but they have played extensively in the UK and were BBC New Generation Artists from 2020-2012.

The quartet opened with Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E flat major which was written in 1829 when the composer was 20 and by which time he had already written the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture and the Octet. In 1829 Mendelssohn made his first trip to Britain, a trip which would inspire the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony. Mendelssohn finished the quartet whilst he was in London that year.

The quartet's first movement opens with a surprisingly slow introduction, and the Escher String Quartet impressed with their beautifully warm and well modulated sound. The Allegro of the first movement proper saw them giving us some flowing, finely graded playing with a lovely singing tone from the first violin. In much of the quartet, Mendelssohn gives the first violin prominence, but the four players of the quartet showed a nice interaction with the music flowing between them. The development section of the first movement got rather more intense, but was no less finely controlled, with beautiful interplay.

The second movement Canzonetta was based on a strongly characterised folk-melody with a nice use of pizzicato in the accompaniment. The players gave the music a lovely pert rhythmic feel, making it very infectious. For the middle section, Mendelssohn used a fast scurrying figure accompanied by slower moving parts, at first having the violins scurrying and the viola and cello accompanying, but then creating a very striking effect by reversing the roles.  The Andante espressivo was very much a solo line from the first violin (including a cadenza-like moment), accompanied by the rest of the ensemble, and here again Adam Barnett-Hart gave us a lovely sweet toned singing line, with a nice warmth to the tone. As the movement developed the music got more intense with Mendelssohn varying the textures, and the players giving us some lovely fine grained playing.

After a dramatic opening gesture the finale was full of vigorous scurrying, which the quartet projected vividly whilst maintaining their fine sweet tone and lovely feeling of mutual interaction. Mendelssohn varies the movement with episodes of different speeds and textures, complete with a long swing into the minor and a surprisingly dramatic code.

Mendelssohn string quartets are still undervalued, and this Opus 12 quartet impressed with its combination of maturity and innate musicality. The Escher Quartet's sweet toned and poised performance was most enjoyable, and it was a pleasure to hear that they are shortly going to be recording the complete Mendelssohn string quartets, certainly a recording to look forward to.

Benjamin Grosvenor won the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of aa. When he was 19 he performed at the First Night of the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2011. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2012, being awarded The Queen's Commendation for Excellence.

Grosvenor started his group of solo works with more Mendelssohn, the Andante and Rondo Capriccioso Op.14 from 1830. The substantial Andante section started with a lovely singing melody, but got more complex as the movement developed. Grosvenor gave us some lovely tonal colours, and magical hushed moments. When the Rondo Capriccioso startsed it was very much a case of the fairies returning. Here Grosvenor gave us some really dazzling fingerwork, still combined with a lovely feel for tonal colouring.

He followed the Mendelssohn with Schubert's Impromptu in G flat major, D.899 No. 3. Grosvenor's performance was atmospheric with lovely controlled arpeggio figures forming a filigree around a singing melody. He also gave darker undertones to the piece, making the whole rather magical whilst avoiding the sentimental.  Grosvener finished with Liszt's Valse de l'opera Faust de Charles Gounod. Liszt's piano transcriptions generally fall into two categories, either pure transcriptions or the reminiscence fantasies which combine themes into a dazzling whole. His piano transcriptions are important in the transmission of 19th century music as Liszt transcribed whole Beethoven and Berlioz symphonies and Schubert songs. The Scottish pianist/composer Ronald Stevenson used to say that if the whole of 19th century music was lost except for Liszt then we would still have an important record.

Liszt's Valse de l'opera Faust de Charles Gounod is very much in the reminiscence/fantasy mould as Liszt takes the waltz from Faust and then incorporates music from other sections of the opera to create a dazzling evocation of Faust, Marguerite and Mephistopheles. Grosvenor's performance of the Liszt was powerful with crisp rhythms and a nice feel for the poetry of the work. In the more brilliantly outrageous passages, his fingerwork was wonderfully deft.

After the interval Benjamin Grosvenor joined the Escher String Quartet for a performance of Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A major from 1887. The work started with a beautifully expressive passage for just cello and piano, before all joined in. Throughout the work, I was aware of the way Dvorak varied the orchestration, with the piano sometimes taking the lead and at other times taking a back seat or dropping out of the texture altogether. Playing in the opening Allegro ma non tanto was brilliantly incisive without being overblown, the faster sections were vibrant, whilst there were also some nicely subtler quieter moments including a fine solo for viola.

The second movement, Dumka had a very interesting interweaving of three different motifs which was very characteristic of Dvorak's writing. The players showed a nice feeling for the ebb and flow of the various strands and textures, though I felt that there were times when Grosvenor was a little too reticent. In the Vivace middle section, the scurrying figures were vividly realised. The Scherzo was crisp and incisive yet infectiously bouncy, with some warmly lyrical themes and a more relaxed middle section. The players really seemed to capture the music's joy.

The final movement was something of a witty moto perpetuo, but for all the music's perkiness there were dark undertones with moments of drama too. It was fascinating to hear Dvorak writing unison passages for the strings, allowing them to 'gang-up' on the piano and achieve a balance in the more powerful passages. The whole quintet had a nice balance to it, with Grosvenor's sense of tonal colour in the piano matching the fine singing tone from the strings, the whole having a real sense of the freedom of fine music making.

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