It is a mark of the richness of the cultural scene in the Highlands that the latest Music Nairn concert was sandwiched between a piano trio concert promoted by Inverness Chamber music and Scottish Opera's run of La Traviata at Eden Court. Moreover, the arriving audience were greeted with a blizzard of leaflets for forthcoming events from The Mahler Players, Musick Fyne and The Marvel of Peru! Notwithstanding this embaras de richesses, the Escher Quartet of New York attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. The group's ethos of 'individual components working together to form a whole', reflected in their homage to the artist M C Escher, was perfectly exemplified in their performances of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Grieg.
Opening with the exquisite K464 Quartet from Mozart's set dedicated to Haydn the group instantly lived up to their highly professional image by playing with a breath-taking unanimity, which managed at the same time to achieve a considerable level of expression and musicality. In marked contrast to Music Nairn's previous concert given by the Brodsky Quartet, this was a no-nonsense performance which it has to be said some members of the audience found visually underwhelming. However, when the playing is of such a superlative standard and the group members are in a state of complete 'mind-meld', it strikes me that any additional posturing is just unnecessary window-dressing. Mozart's late Quartets are deceptive in that they look straight-forward on paper, but in fact they are extremely demanding intellectually and technically. At the heart of this beautiful music is a lyrical Andante, and the group unerringly uncovered its considerable treasures.
Mendelssohn wrote his op 44 Quartets during a period of his life when he was ecstatically happy in the wake of his marriage, and this ambience pervades this lovely quartet. The group brought out the work's energy and lyrical beauty to perfection, and I became aware for the first time of strands of melody from the composer's op 42 Psalm 'Wie der Hirsch schreit' composed earlier the same year. Most impressive in the Eschers' reading of the work was their apparently effortless handling of its hair-raising technical demands.
The second half consisted of the underperformed String Quartet by Grieg, which received a stunning performance by the Eschers. Alternating lovely lyricism with an altogether darker sound-world of wild Hardanger fiddles, cavorting trolls and twilit pinewoods, this Quartet is a major and unique contribution to the genre. The Escher Quartet had the measure of this challenging music and conducted us on an utterly engaging and thoroughly authoritative tour of Grieg's rich musical imagination. At one point shimmering harmonics seemed to invoke curtains of northern lights, and to my mind these are the sort of visual images you want to take home from an excellent chamber concert. It was clear from cellist Brook Speltz's witty and concise introductions to the music that the group are enamoured of Scottish culture, particularly our uisge beatha, but with this concert they in turn have made a fruitful contribution to the lively ferment of local cultural life.