The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened last night at Koerner Hall with a concert by the Escher Quartet who came in at quite short notice for the venerable Borodins who had to pull out due to illness. The theme of this year’s festival is “Reflections of Wartime” as perhaps befits the 100th anniversary of the Great War. That said, I’m not sure how last night’s programme fitted the theme. None of Schumann’s Quartet no.1, Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 9 nor Tchaikovsky’s Quartet no. 1 have any obvious war references.
That aside, my main reason for going was the Shostakovich. The 9th is one of the less bleak Shostakovich quartets though it still mixes lyricism with sardonic humour and abrasiveness. There’s also some almost gentle humour and an absence of bombast. Characteristic touches like recurring Rossini pastiche link us to other works like the 15th symphony. It’s miles away though from the 13th symphony that preceded it (with settings of Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar poems). I think the Eschers found the essence of it. They seemed to be playing off each other well and there was some really beautiful playing by both violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um. The lower strings; Pierre Lapointe (viola) and Brook Speltz (cello) sounded suitably dark.
The Schumann and Tchaikovsky works also got spirited readings though neither is a piece I’m particularly familiar with or likely to go back to over much. It was enjoyable enough but I’m not deep in this rep and generally mid 19th century Romanticism is just not my thing. Final note, if Mr. Speltz ever decides to give up the cello, he would have a promising career as a stand up comedian.
Photo credit: James Ireland