The Brentano String Quartet at Tannery Pond Monteverdi, Haydn, and Beethoven

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The Brentano String Quartet
The Brentano String Quartet. Photo Christian Steiner.

Tannery Pond Concerts, July 4, 2009

Brentano String Quartet
Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violinists;
Misha Amory, violist; Nina Lee, cellist

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) 
Four Madrigals, from Madrigals a cinque voci, Book VI (arranged by Mark Steinberg)
Lasciatemi morire  (“Let me die”)
Ohime il bel viso (“Alas, the beautiful face”)
Ditelo voi, O fiume (“Rend the air, O rivers”)
Zefiro torna (“Zephyrus returns”)

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) 
Quartet in G minor, Opus 20, No. 3 (Hob. III:33)

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
“Razumovsky” Quartet in C major, Opus 59, No. 3

One of the best things about being alive in this difficult age is our current wealth of string quartets. In no other area of music is there less cause for nostalgia. The Emerson and and Takács Quartets are not the only discouragements to the wistful dusting-off of one’s Budapest and Amadeus Quartet recordings, although I’m sure I’ll never neglect the Busch Quartet. The Brentano Quartet, founded in 1992, is one more bracing reason to be content living in the present. Contemporary string quartets tend to play as a collection of brilliant, highly developed individuals, who happen to be so good at what they do, that they can play with perfect ensemble. I recently observed how this marks a generational difference with older quartets like the Juilliard, who concentrate on ensemble. The Brentano is entirely of its time in this respect. The individual players’ virtuosity, strong individualism, and their particular art of ensemble are equally impressive. They achieve their ensemble through strong interaction rather than through imposed discipline. In terms of timbre the result is a distinct sound for each instrument within a general predilection for contrasting the dark tones of the lower strings with brilliant high notes.  This gave them all plenty of room to inject colorful nuances into individual phrases and notes. In the balanced acoustic of the Tannery this all sounded quite magnificent.

As if to exercise their independence, the Quartet opened the concert with versions of five-part madrigals by Monteverdi, arranged by first violinist, Mark Steinberg. This style depends entirely on full participation by five independent voices. A choral approach is entirely against the character of these part-songs, and the Brentano’s approach made a strong case for them in this format. The audience could be carried along by the beauty and expressiveness of the individual vocal lines just as well as if they were being sung to their texts. Phrasing and color were at the heart of the Brentano’s playing, and the audience related to it as directly as if the madrigals were familiar chamber music staples.

The Juilliard included Haydn Opus 20, no. 3 in their recent Ozawa Hall concert, but the Brentano was in another world altogether. As they play it, Haydn’s music is thoroughly vital. The harmonic progressions and counterpoint in this work are full of nervous and muscular tension. Harmonic progressions, especially shifts from minor to major, can be ambiguous, and for Haydn they are dramatic. With his improvisatory way of following the harmonic implications of his themes, it is never predictable where the music is going to go. The melancholy, agitated minuet is a prime example of this. This movement further prepares us for the noble serenity of the first section of the slow movement, which once again betrays the trusting listener, when in its development it ventures off into harmonic complication and darker, more vulnerable moods. In the final rondo, Haydn becomes even more aggressive, interrupting the music with abrupt pauses followed by disturbing harmonic shifts, which make much of the movement a search for the home key, ending abruptly when it is touched, as if it were really no more than an afterthought. There was none of the Juilliard’s somnolent reverence here, and the Brentano gave a robust performance, which made it perfectly clear why the work sat between madrigals by the first great operatic composer, and Beethoven’s emotionally capacious and dramatic middle period quartet.

The Brentano’s pungent, but refined sonorities were ideal for the Third Razumovsky Quartet. The slow introduction was a solemn, shadowy exploration of dark moods, recalling the voice leading of the Monteverdi and the harmonic drama of the Haydn. The clear articulation and nuanced dynamics and color of the violins, Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, were a delight in the genial main subject. (The strength of lower strings (Misha Amory, violist—a powerful musician—and Nina Lee, cellist) gave this performance its own particular stamp, as it did, for that matter, in the Haydn as well. Nina Lee’s enthusiasm and concentration on her part was infectious. The players adopted a fairly active pace in the second movement, quite literally “quasi Allegretto,” which gave the ostinato a taut, ever so slightly nervous quality, which never quite disappeared, even in the more courtly figural section, which eventually comes close to dissolution as the meter becomes more relaxed, only to be caught up by a Haydnesque pause, followed by a harmonic surprise. The Brentano’s sonic palette was just right for the contrasts of lower strings and violins in the Menuetto, not to mention the racing fugal entries of the concluding Allegro molto. The Brentano’s control at a seriously rapid tempo and the bite of their playing were thrilling. In this highly satisfying reading every detail seemed thought out afresh and executed with the keenest sense of balance and musicality.

This memorable evening with one of our greatest string quartets was entirely what we expect to hear at Tannery Pond.

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