New Esterházy in Technicolor

Thomas Busse on November 27, 2011
New Esterházy Quartet
New Esterházy Quartet

Judging by the number of excellent professional string players who showed up to hear the New Esterházy Quartet Saturday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco, the small audience knew it was in for a treat. This quartet is my favorite type of chamber ensemble. The members — Lisa Weiss, Kati Kyme, Anthony Martin, and William Skeen — come from the front chairs of Bay Area period instrument bands such as Philharmonia Baroque and the American Bach Soloists. Whereas many top-flight touring quartets grow insular and even seemingly tired of the quartet repertory, New Esterházy’s members gain from their constant exposure to working in different situations, with wind players and singers who breathe, with music that is staged, or with conductors offering unique and eccentric ideas. The New Esterházy players also have the strength of long association with each other, having originally come together to perform the complete Haydn quartets. Now that they’ve exhausted this wealth of music, they’re exploring the work of Haydn’s contemporaries and students.

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These are the earliest string quartets in the literature, meaning that concerts cannot survive on the surefire tearjerkers of the later Romantics. These early quartets truly come alive when performed on period instruments. I am sure if these players strapped on shoulder rests and steel strings, they would remain entertaining. The main difference with the gut strings they use, however, is the additional resonance in the sound. Phrases and notes do not simply end; they linger — demanding musical and emotional completion. Motives are not closed statements; they are open-ended questions. In addition, these instruments cannot escape a certain natural unevenness of bowing. Good musicians such as the New Esterházy foursome can harness this bowing subtlety to amplify articulation and nuance, to make the music speak and sing. Introducing the program, Martin made reference to singing in Haydn’s striking Quartet in C, Op. 20, No. 2 (1772), pointing out how the middle movements form something of an operatic scene. Typical of Haydn’s bold experiments with harmony, Martin described it as a mad scene, and this concept informed New Esterházy’s bold reading.

Good musicians such as the New Esterházy foursome can harness this bowing subtlety to amplify articulation and nuance.

University graduates with certain degrees in liberal arts might identify with the situation faced by many Czech musicians in the 18th century. Anton Reicha (1770–1836) was one such who ventured far from home to find a job. His early attempts to write operas in Paris failed, and he settled for a time in Vienna. Judging by his String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 94, No. 3, from 1808, the opera bug never quite left him. Martin called attention to the contrapuntal writing in the third movement, but I was more struck by the opening movement, which sounded like a good bel canto overture on par with one by Cherubini. Like Mendelssohn’s F-minor String Quartet, which is occasionally performed by full chamber orchestras, this quartet would work well even if played by a full band. The New Esterházy players’ orchestral experience probably furthered this impression. Reicha’s Andante wavers between highly motivic themes interspersed with daring counterpoint, and the Rondo-finale shows traces of country dances that resonate beautifully on the cellist’s open strings. Martin expressed the Quartet’s original intention to program Reicha’s Opus 95 quartet, but claimed that Opus 94 was better. This attention to programming and a willingness to find new repertory are commendable.

Rare Reicha, Unknown Zmeskall

Although he eventually earned wide repute and esteem in his own time, Reicha is little known today. New Esterházy also included a short, two-movement quartet by another unknown, Nicholas Zmeskall (1759–1833), who was also the dedicatee of a few works by Haydn and Beethoven. This quartet, No. 10 in D Minor (1785), was charming but unmemorable when presented alongside the other, more striking works in the recital.

This attention to programming and a willingness to find new repertory are commendable.

In 1921, scholar Arnold Schering pointed out that Beethoven had written over a sketch of his Opus 95 Quartet in F Minor, “Serioso,” these words: “Get used to sketching immediately the entire complete impression as it shows itself in the mind.” In performing that work, the New Esterházy was able to move beyond the moniker conferred on that particular quartet. After all, nobody wants a bath of unadulterated seriousness (that would be classical music!). This quartet always makes a strong impact when performed well; Martin compared it to a “neutron star”: short, but of impossibly infinite density. The work conjures hints and visions of external things, all of which are intense, phantasmagoric, and unsettling; yet in the white light of the concert hall they are plainly just chromatic motives and counterpoint — tiny details that New Esterházy’s excellent players appreciate and magnify. Yet Beethoven’s hint at narrative remains inescapable, for at the very last moment a tectonic shift erupts from the texture, the relentlessly foreboding and disturbed mood instantly yields to a bright light of optimism, and the audience is left to scurry away in exuberant Technicolor.