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The Brentano String Quartet

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Though the Brentano String Quartet pays reg­u­lar vis­its to th­ese parts, it never wears out its wel­come. Founded in 1992, this bench­mark en­sem­ble is the finest Amer­i­can string quartet of its gen­er­a­tion. The group’s con­cert on Jan. 15, spon­sored by Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica, dis­played the tech­ni­cal se­cu­rity, artis­tic in­sight, and lack of gim­mickry that cham­ber-mu­sic afi­ciona­dos have come to ex­pect of them.

The fact that there was re­ally noth­ing to take ex­cep­tion to freed a lis­tener to sim­ply ab­sorb and con­sider their mu­si­cal points in a spirit of un­bi­ased ex­plo­ration rather than con­fronta­tion or dis­sent. Con­sider the first move­ment of Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat ma­jor (Op. 20, No. 1). A few sec­onds in, the cello lets loose an erup­tion in the form of a ris­ing bro­ken chord, rhyth­mi­cally dif­fer­ent from any­thing sur­round­ing it. This mark of Hayd­nesque hu­mor can be played ei­ther with full tone or with less deco­rous hoarse­ness (as the Brentano chose to do), both when it is in­tro­duced and when it re­turns later in the ex­po­si­tion (the move­ment’s open­ing sec­tion). Then it all hap­pens again when that ex­po­si­tion sec­tion is re­peated note-for-note, and yet an­other time when, af­ter some mu­si­cal ex­plo­ration (the de­vel­op­ment), that open­ing mu­sic re­turns for a fi­nal run-through in the move­ment’s clos­ing sec­tion (the re­ca­pit­u­la­tion). Does the fa­mil­iar sonata-form struc­ture of dis­clo­sure, suspense, and res­o­lu­tion mean that ev­ery de­tail should be pro­filed in the same way each time around? Would it be more mean­ing­ful, or even fun­nier, if such a mem­o­rable out­burst were played dif­fer­ently with each ap­pear­ance? The Brentanos went for the first op­tion, which is stan­dard. I’ll bet they con­sid­ered the al­ter­na­tive and de­cided that greater pay­back lay with Classical clar­ity than with mo­men­tary di­ver­sion. But here’s the im­por­tant thing: One sensed that it was a con­sid­ered de­ci­sion, and they con­veyed their choice with ab­so­lute cer­tainty.

The Santa Fe au­di­ence heard the third-ever pub­lic per­for­mance of The Fifth Book, writ­ten for them by Amer­i­can com­poser Stephen Hartke. He had dipped his toe in the wa­ter five years ago via what now stands as the first of the work’s five move­ments. That sec­tion was in­spired by a frag­ment sketched by Dmitri Shostakovich, whose pres­ence is sensed through much of the new piece. That car­ried-over move­ment has the fla­vor of a pas­sacaglia in which the sec­ond vi­o­lin (and some­times other in­stru­ments) in­tone a melody rem­i­nis­cent of the Re­nais­sance tune “The Leaves Be Green” while other lines wend around it, some­times achiev­ing a spirit of haunted frenzy. Hartke showed mas­tery over the ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties of quartet tex­ture, some­times pair­ing off the in­stru­ments into dis­tinct sound-worlds. A mem­o­rable ex­am­ple came in the slow third move­ment, where the two vi­o­lins har­mo­nized in a lan­guid tune that con­trasted com­pletely with the vi­ola and cello, which worked as a team to evoke a har­mo­nium. In­tro­duc­ing the piece, vi­o­lin­ist Mark Stein­berg ex­plained that the ti­tle sug­gested some con­nec­tion to Re­nais­sance madri­gal col­lec­tions (which were char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally col­lected into se­quen­tial books — the First Book of Madri­gals, Sec­ond Book, and so on); and he re­vealed that the piece’s progress cor­re­lated to the pass­ing of a year’s sea­sons. Maybe those al­lu­sions were more ap­par­ent to other lis­ten­ers than to me, at least be­yond the fact that much of the mu­sic sounded mer­cu­rial in the way that madri­gals can when they change capri­ciously to re­flect the nu­ances of a poetic text. As the end ap­proached, the piece wafted off in a kind of melody, so char­ac­ter­is­tic of Shostakovich and well im­i­tated by Hartke, that sounds melan­choly and in­sou­ciant at the same time.

Beethoven’s Quartet in F ma­jor (Op. 59, No. 1, the first of the Razu­movsky set) was an­other ex­er­cise in ad­mirable quartet-play­ing. Al­though the Brentanos’ style is cer­tainly “modern,” the play­ers ju­di­ciously in­cor­po­rate some of the lessons learned from the his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance move­ment. First vi­o­lin and vi­ola of­ten re­sorted to play­ing straight tones un­in­flected by vi­brato, a pref­er­ence of ear­ly­mu­sic per­form­ers but gen­er­ally es­chewed by modern cham­ber play­ers. For the Brentanos, it rep­re­sented an op­tion for ex­pand­ing the tonal palette and for in­fus­ing the tex­ture with bursts of clar­ity. One doesn’t go there blithely, though, as notes played with­out vi­brato sound ter­ri­ble if they’re not per­fectly in tune. That was not an is­sue here, even when the first vi­o­lin as­cended high into the strato­sphere. Speak­ing (again) of re­ca­pit­u­la­tion sec­tions, the four­some whipped up a tor­nado of ex­cite­ment by in­sert­ing a crescendo and sus­tain­ing its mount­ing in­ten­sity right into the re­ca­pit­u­la­tion in the first move­ment of this piece, a tran­si­tion they made un­usu­ally dra­matic with­out al­low­ing it to be coarse. They had earthy fun in the scherzo, cra­dled the Ada­gio in ten­der sad­ness, and de­liv­ered the fi­nale with a full mea­sure of vim and vigor. — James M. Keller

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