It was a little like seeing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel reproduced on a postage stamp. We are used to understanding Bruckner as sprawling, that the value of the experience is receiving awe through enormous walls of sound and strange silences.
But even on a smaller canvas, a strong sense of awe arrived intact Sunday afternoon when the young Escher String Quartet, joined by venerable violist Samuel Rhodes, made its Philadelphia Chamber Music Society debut with Bruckner's String Quintet in F Major. You couldn't say that the snug Benjamin Franklin Hall at the American Philosophical Society echoed with a power approaching anything orchestral -- no mountains of brass or mysterious sunlight streaming through certain Brucknerian string textures. Yet the basic musculature of the symphonies was there: loud unison statements followed by supreme delicacy, the building up and petering out of tension, and melodies alternating between glowing spirituality and folklike simplicity.
We love Bruckner because his music leaves us feeling changed, and so it was with a mere five strings.
This was not only the piece's introduction to PCMS audiences, but also the first appearance of the New York Escher, founded in 2005. The group opened with the Mendelssohn String Quartet in F Minor, a wise vehicle for its usually unified personality. Members have obviously cultivated a particular ensemble sound, an intense glow that they effectively deployed in the blustery piece. Adam Barnett-Hart, playing first violin, was master of the tasteful portamento, pacing his slide from one note to the next slowly enough to be sweet, but not so slow as to be mawkish.
Britten's 1945 String Quartet in C Major functions almost as a concerto grosso, with imaginative writing that both pairs instruments and gives each a moment in the spotlight. Near-cadenzas for cello and viola were played magnificently by Brook Speltz and Pierre Lapointe, respectively, and the unison statements by Barnett-Hart and violinist Aaron Boyd were impressively rendered as a single voice.
Ultimately, though, Bruckner occupied the afternoon's center of gravity. The piece appeared to test the patience of some in the audience. The spell of his music comes only to those able to accept that spirituality sometimes means abandoning traditional concepts of time. Bruckner's use of silence always seems like he has posed a question to God and is waiting for an answer. That it never comes does nothing to shake his faith. He keeps asking, and we keep listening.