More Brahms with your Webern, sir?

The Perth Festival’s Brahms Chamber Weekend on February 17–19 ran like a German Romantic feast with side servings of Webern and Brett Dean. And the master chefs behind it? The USA’s crackerjack Escher quartet.

How does a three-course meal sound when prepared by one of the world’s elite chefs? Think aromatic spices, creamy textures and robust flavours skipping over your palate and sending you into a state of ecstasy. Now imagine the musical equivalent: three concerts, masterful performers, impeccable technique and sensuous melodies and timbres. If this reminds you of a very recent musical experience, you may just have attended the Escher Quartet’s Brahms Chamber Weekend at this year’s Perth Festival.

Heirs to the school of North American excellence in chamber playing forged by the Emerson and Juilliard Quartets, this newly formed group from the US seems to have the perfect recipe for success: youth, talent, ambition and the backing of older, established greats like Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.

The Escher Quartet’s offering to Perth audiences was a tripartite musical feast: three concerts taking place over as many days; first, second and third courses, all dished up with exquisite musical elegance. Three composers were on the menu. Representing turn-of-the-century Vienna was Webern, in the guise of his ethereal and languid Five Movements for String Quartet. Australian composer and violist Brett Dean also enriched the musical platter with a performance of his Tampa Bay controversy-inspired work Eclipse.

Yet the event’s key ingredient was undoubtedly Brahms. Over the three days, seven of his chamber works were performed (his three quartets, two string quintets, piano quintet and clarinet quintet), making for a veritable eat-till-you-burst banquet of hearty German Romantic fare.

The group’s fortes are numerous. For starters, they have a special flair for dynamic shifts. They manage their crescendos and decrescendos masterfully, swelling and retreating with an organic simplicity, especially in passages of the First String Quintet and Third Quartet. Their rhythmic and thematic contrasts are clear and forcefully articulated, serving them well in the shape-shifting works by Webern and Dean. Their gift for textural clarity proved of crucial importance in the Clarinet and Piano Quintets, where they were joined by WASO clarinettist Allan Meyer and young Australian pianist Caroline Almonte. And, of course, there’s the remarkably polished technique of the individual members.

During the interval of the second concert, shuffling aimlessly between the bar and the stairwell, I heard a discerning concertgoer mutter, “Pretty playing. Very pretty. But it is not Brahms. If Brahms had been alive today, he would have played his quartet differently”. I reflected for a second and realised he had a point. Brahms was, by many accounts, a grump (to put it mildly). It’s said that, on his way out the door, he once apologised to the host of a party if he’d failed to insult any of the attending guests. He was often curt, difficult, and had a knack for alienating the masses. So if you really wanted to, you could read Brahms’s complex character into his music. There is lyricism in Brahms, but it is tempered by reason; there is passion, but it is burdened by academic restraint; there is angry, despair and joy, but they are always controlled and never allowed to run completely free.

So the question may be: is the Escher quartet is equipped to strike this peculiar balance between right and left brain that is so pronounced in Brahms? Or, perhaps, we can take it a step further and ask the question: does it really matter whether they are? Sure, Brahms could be bastard, but he could be a nice guy too (a fact affirmed by the complete devotion he enjoyed from his closest friends). Which Brahms, then, wrote the music: the first, the second, or a mixture of the two?

It seemed to me that the Eschers felt more at home with Weber and Dean than they did with Brahms. They identified with the modernist spirit on a more visceral level and their responses to this music were more immediate. As soon as they began to play, the tension, both in their bodies and in the sound they produced, was electrifying. With the Brahms – which, admittedly, presents certain interpretative challenges – they played as if they required a warm-up period for their energy to lift. This could take half the program (for example, in the first concert) or a couple of movements (as in the last). That said, once their energy levels were up, they were unstoppable, and they got warmer with each concert. The last piece of the final program, the Piano Quintet, was absolutely heart-stopping: brutal, violent and played with an unabated verve that sent the crowd into a frenzy of whoot-whooting and cheering.

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