The Brentano String Quartet
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