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At PCMS, Dover and Escher show two string quartets are better than one

The Escher and Dover quartets joined forces in a rarity.

The Escher String Quartet
The Escher String QuartetRead moreAnna Kariel

Arnold Steinhardt, violinist in the Guarneri Quartet, writes in his blog about a scene in a documentary where, filled with hope, he brings the Kreisler String Quartet to his colleagues for a reading. The three other players give it the thumbs down.

The hows and whys of what gets to the stage are largely a shrouded process, but the Kreisler must have drawn some love from the Escher String Quartet, which played the work Friday night at the Perelman Theater.

The concert was a significant one, and not just because Fritz Kreisler was one in a handful of violinists across four centuries who made the instrument what it is. All three works on the program were rare jewels. Who but the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society would have brought the Escher together with the Dover Quartet for something like George Enescu’s String Octet in C Major, Op. 7?

Actually, if birthright prevailed, it would have been the Dover, founded at the Curtis Institute of Music, performing Kreisler. The PCMS program notes remind us the work was premiered a century ago at a dinner in honor of soprano Alma Gluck and violinist Efrem Zimbalist, the latter the teacher to some of the Dover’s teachers.

The Dover on Friday, though, chose Britten, his String Quartet in D Major, Op. 25, whose very first note is so distinctive it could be by no one else. The ensemble was impressive in spots, particularly in highlighting the kind of sudden mood shifts and contradictions with which Britten loves to play.

Crisp and orderly is the second movement march — until one instrument steps out of line with a smear, then another. Like this little musical dialogue, Britten never did fit in, and to some extent he still doesn’t find his way onto programs to an extent that’s commensurate with his genius.

Is the Kreisler Quartet genius? It’s probably a minority view to think so. But if played through the right lens, the case becomes more clear. Kreisler wrote the piece just after World War I, and it is infused with Vienna — not the one of Strauss waltzes, but of the last few wisps of late-Romantic style just as serialism was setting in. Lighter than pre-12-tone Schoenberg, Kreisler’s quartet nonetheless conveys the same breathless nostalgia for a dying age.

The Escher Quartet missed that point. Adroit and stylish they were, but their view is a cool one. They seemed to consciously avoid becoming too expressive, failing to fully shape phrases or lingering over the resolution of certain harmonic progressions. Some of the charm was there, but none of the more complex drama. Where was the merry, elastic bounce of that last movement? For an ideal performance of the piece, it’s best to listen to the Portland String Quartet’s recording from the early ‘80s. Still, the piece nicely set the stage for PCMS’s January festival exploring shifting cultural identities coming out of the First World War.

The Enescu Octet was a joy to hear. It’s a great ensemble piece and gives each player real solo moments. Here that meant a chance to savor violinist Joel Link and violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, both of the Dover.

None of the performances Friday could be called definitive. But both the Kreisler and Enescu were being done at a PCMS concert for the first time in the presenter’s three-plus decades. The Kreisler at least should get a redux. Genius or not, it deserves a worthy advocate.