Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Escher & Vieaux

Escher String Quartet
Jason Vieaux, guitar
Feb. 15, Virginia Commonwealth University

Chamber music does not get much more fun than Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in D major, the “Fandango,” for guitar and string quartet, the biggest crowd-pleaser, if not the highlight, of a Rennolds Chamber Concerts program by the Escher String Quartet and classical guitarist Jason Vieaux.

(At least that was the printed order of billing. Much of the audience, I suspect, would have preferred to see the guitarist given top billing.)

The musicians drew great jollity and swagger from the Boccherini’s namesake final movement – all that was missing (sorely) was castanets. The first two movements of the quintet struck me as a bit too measured in tempo and careful in articulation and accenting, sounding elegant but short on verve and spontaneity.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, which proved to be a showcase of the Escher’s strengths. This work encapsulates the voices that Mendelssohn assumed in his greatest works – stormy drama in its outer movements, quicksilver speed and lightness in its scherzo, high sentiment in its andante; and the ensemble captured all those voices in a performance of understated but revealing virtuosity.

The collective sound of violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Dane Jonansen was not especially big or overly assertive, but highly focused and surprisingly room-filling.

Unlike the typical string quartet in classical and romantic repertory, the Escher did not treat the first violin as a default lead voice – Barnett-Hart was a presence but not an especially dominant one; and the foursome made a point of rendering internal and contrapuntal voices with exceptional clarity. The duos and exchanges of Boyd and Lapointe were some of the highlights of the performance.

Vieaux, who is becoming a regular visitor to these parts (this was his third Richmond appearance in 10 years), also joined the Escher in Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet, Op. 143, a work whose prevailing neoclassical style makes room for Italianate melody (the composer was a Florentine who emigrated to Southern California before World War II) and energetic, jazzy riffs.

Vieuax’s solo cameo was Mario Giuliani’s “Grande Overture,” a sonata-form compression of the Mozart-to-Rossini style of opera overture to the voice of a solo guitar, played with appropriate lilt, wit and suavity.