Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Beethoven’s Last String Quartet, Mozart, the Renaissance and Ian Munro with the Brentano String Quartet

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Corio (Geelong Grammar School across Corio Bay), c.1943 by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. National Gallery of Australia.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place: 23 May 2011
Organized by Musica Viva. The Quartet tours Adelaide 27 May Melbourne 28 and 31 May, Canberra 2 June, and returns to Sydney Saturday 4 June.

Brentano String Quartet
violins – Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin
viola – Misha Amory
cello – Nina Maria Lee

String Quartet no. 15 in d minor, K421

Ian Munro
String Quartet no. 1, From an Exhibition of Australian Woodcuts
I. Sails in the Wind
II. Corio Magnolias
III. Tarantella on a Sydney Tram

William Byrd
In Nomine a 4 no. 2

Orlando Gibbons
Fantasia a 4 no. 1

William Byrd
In Nomine a 4 no. 1

Orlando Gibbons
Fantasia a 4 no. 2

String Quartet no. 16 in F Major, opus 135

The string quartet often served as a kind of guinea pig for composers’ experimentation and innovation, especially in the Classical period, and the peculiar bright, sometimes astringent (generally in a good way) sound of this arrangement of instruments foreshadows that of 20th Century Music. (Scientifically, this sound partly owes the violin’s unique quality that its first harmonic can be louder than the fundamental, though this depends a great deal on personal style). A good example is perhaps Mozart’s String Quartet no. 19 in C major K465, dubbed ‘Dissonance,’ which many balked at when first played. Mozart and Haydn, and later also Benjamin Britten, were keen violists, and they sometimes played the alto part in their own and their friends’ works, entrusting the first violin to a professional musician while retaining some control over the piece’s early performances. Perhaps if Schoenberg could have participated in the first performances of his atonal music it would have had more early success.

The Brentano Quartet for all their other virtues has developed their own very unique personality. One could hear this immediately in the Mozart, where they played the dissonant, obtuse chords, with real beauty, a very soft, gentle touch — almost as if in imitation of a wind ensemble, another genre over which Mozart was the master. Rather than dazzling right off the mark as some quartets maybe do, which of course does have its place, Bretnano drew one into the music by saying ‘well, sure its a bit dissonant and the key isn’t crystal clear, but that’s nothing new in itself to our post-Schoenbergian ears, so let’s look at the actual composition, what are these notes? why did Mozart choose them, or rather why did they choose Mozart?’ One can almost hear Mozart as Rachmaninoff’s ancestor, with these sometimes smooth and soft, always liquid but huge, and partially dissonant chords which ask to be stretched and paused upon.

Brentano took these first movements on the slow side, too, I thought, perhaps due to their slight stretching of their silences, which gave the piece a certain cellularity and clarity of form, and moreover a thoughtful quality. This quality coupled to their lightness of touch in the piano sections showed the group’s respect for the piece’s introspective sense. Thus the gaiety and oddness of the four way pizzicato ‘trio’ of the third ‘Menuetto e Trio’ movement had all the greater effect. Brentano plucked this section skippingly, deliberately with an avian satisfaction with life (Mozart also loved birds), even if Mozart turns this sense soon after. Later in the fourth movement is a syncopated theme in the first violin, intensified by the other instruments for which their playing was very satisfying, due to a similar kind of sudden oddness. Towards the finale of the piece, the group attained an intense suspenseful feeling without needing to resort to affectation.

I thought the cello was a bit heavy in parts of the first movement and second, but later when Nina Maria Lee played just marginally lighter, she produced a wonderful embracing tone. Also, at some points the group’s tremolo was a bit too strong, but this didn’t effect the piece as a whole unduly.

Gust of Wind (1931) linocut by Edith Spowers.

Ian Munro features again in this concert with his 2009 first String Quartet (The Eggner Trio played excellently a piece of his at the last concert organized by Musica Viva, and the composer himself will play in his new Piano Quintet, specially commissioned by Musica Viva, later this year). As he explained before Brentano played, his inspiration stemmed from an exhibit of Australian wood and linocuts at the Art Gallery of Ballarat (an old gold mining town in Victoria). The pieces take the art’s imagery only as a starting place, the composer’s active imagination then seems to fly to a very different, very much musical plane, and the piece becomes its own animal. The first piece starts from the wind, rain and sunshine and precarious washing line of Gust of Wind by Edith Spowers and On the Line by Jessie Mackintosh. Sunshine and rain marry quite readily in music. The piece is unsettling in a pleasant way, its keys slide almost stochastically, seeming without cause or reason, but changing with a certain Prokofiev-like wit. The funny little whole tone runs which the instruments pass back and forth, gives spatial sense, but means we cannot look to the instrumentation for something to hang onto. The music is never still, melodically (always either rising or falling), harmonically or instrumentally, but isn’t ever hyperactive in any sense. The running motif has a feeling of pleasing naïvety to it and gives the piece a unity in unpredictability, like a butterfly fluttering from gust to gust with apparently no control over its destination.

According to the composer, his inspiration for Corio Magnolias stems from the linocuts Corio by L. Hirschfeld-Mack (see picture above) and Magnolias by Anne Montgomery, plus a good deal of fantasy. It seemed to me the most abstract and the most appealing of the three, by the end it sheds all specific, concrete imagery. Mr. Munro seems to come into his own with this greater abstraction, as the music is reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s depth and floating harmonies.

Sydney Tramline (1936) linocut by Eveline Syme. Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Tarantella on a Sydney Tram (two things Sydney could use more of, I mean the dancing of course, not the spider) come from Eveline Syme’s Sydney Tramline. The piece captured machinery vividly, but not that of clockwork or a futurist’s precise, frightening machines, but one of those easily anthropomorphized ones with humanity and imperfections; the rhythms are lop-sided, not to the point of lurching, but close, still running along. The music also borrowed that light, airy quality unique to trams along with the consequent vulnerability and danger. The theme of Corio Magnolias returns here, lending a sense of wonder, perhaps we arrive at Bondi Beach or, more likely, someplace even more intangible.

The Brentano’s playing of the Renaissance pieces by Byrd and Gibbons in the midst of these Classical and 21st century pieces was a really interesting piece of programming. They played them with a casual sense of occasion, as if really improvising them in a friend’s home. The music worked well on modern instruments, not even related to the viol, the group’s lightness of touch and tone, while removing them from the historical sound, brought out the sonorities in the counter point and there was a benefit to this pure sound, as it invited one to hear into the composition, especially in the Byrd pieces. While intermixing the two composers’ music in a way gave a familiar Classical form to this part of the program, I think it would have been better to hear each composer’s work separately, especially considering this manner in which Brentano played them.

In the Beethoven quartet the instruments are yet more separate than in the Mozart, each receiving a discrete role, yet the personal styles of the players didn’t stick out significantly more, and their unity gave the piece a clarity of form. One can see in this Beethoven’s last quartet how he benefited from and continued Mozart’s developments in the genre. The tight cells of notes passed between players had a strong sense of rhythm, with a sort of secondary overarching rhythm governing the coming and going, exchanging and passing of these shorter motifs. Beethoven’s last piano sonatas, as deep and near perfect as they are, written around four years before this quartet (together over two years with Quartets no. 12, 13, 14 and 15), show the wide difference in the genres, a string quartet’s refined intensity of feeling, capable at moments of something like the unsettling zing of the 3rd and 5th symphonies, which the opi 109-111 piano sonatas had mostly shed. In between those three sonatas and these five quartets, he composed his Ninth Symphony. We see how Beethoven listened to his instruments and brought them out for his compositions for different colors of expression, as he needed, at the corresponding times of his life.

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