Escher String Quartet, Phillips Collection, December 20, 2015
Leoš Janáček, String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”
Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartet Op. 44, No. 2 in E minor
Alexander Zemlinsky, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15
On Sunday at the Phillips Collection, the Escher String Quartet offered a bracing antidote to the season of ubiquitous “Messiahs” and treacly “Nutcrackers.” Bookending its program with the violent psychodrama of works by Leos Janacek and Alexander Zemlinsky, the New York-based ensemble presented a highly charged and emotionally wrenching afternoon of chamber music.
Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, which opened the concert, established the Escher’s fundamental approach to the program: aggressive attacks, a vivid declamatory style and urgent drama. Composed in 1923, the quartet was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” in which marital jealousy erupts in murderous rage. The Escher members — violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Brook Speltz — made the most out of the music’s narrative contrasts in a tense, expressionistic performance…