A BREAKTHROUGH FOR THE BRENTANO

Brentano Quartet, Vancouver Playhouse, December 7, 2010

 Photo: Peter Schaaf

Photo: Peter Schaaf

The Brentano String Quartet has always been something of a puzzle.  Founded in 1992 from a Julliard background, winners of the Cleveland Quartet and Naumberg Chamber Music Awards in 1995, always conspicuous at the center of music activity in the US and in London -- and yet  their recording career has hardly taken off.   In their previous concerts here, they have always show immense technical skill, but their rather hard-edged tonal blend and often clipped, unyielding articulation seemed to generate intensity more appropriate to ultra-modern chamber compositions than the traditional string quartet literature being performed for us.   One admires the Brentano’s work in championing contemporary American composers (see their Naxos CD’s 8.572087 and 8.559377); the question is: Would they eventually find a style that suits the more relaxed and subtle profile of traditional works?

In an enterprising concert of Haydn’s last (completed) quartet, Op. 77, no. 2, Schubert’s last quartet and Alban Berg’s only Quartet, I saw clear progress.  I expected the Haydn to be given a bustling, rhythmically-incisive treatment (see their 2009 YouTube), but what we heard from the very opening was the most restrained, perfectly balanced quartet playing that one could hope for.  This was patient, interactive, communicative playing that only very selectively pushed towards emotional peaks, bringing just the right type of resolution when it did.  The beautiful slow movement maintained this intimacy, making its heartfelt themes stand out even more.  I actually began to hope that there would be greater drive and thrust in the finale.  Indeed there was, bringing this great quartet to a most satisfying conclusion.

The Brentano’s musical judgment was also evident in the Berg Quartet (1910). For all the work is more than a century later and ‘atonal’, it communicates its content directly as a passionate post-romantic work, as with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht.  Here some searing-edge intensity is really required to bring out the force of the feeling and the strength the writing. What impressed me is that the Brentano also found warmer, luxuriant string textures to bring out the beauty of the feeling (as with contemporary Viennese composers such as Mahler or Zemlinsky).  This was an expertly-balanced performance that captured the spirit of the music.

For all one could scarcely find recordings of it 40 years ago, Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G major (1828) is his last, and probably greatest, quartet.  Having an opening movement over 20 minutes long, weaving a stark structural strength with the most quiet, tender lyricism, it offers a ‘journey of discovery’ for any listener (just like his last, B-flat major piano sonata and the ‘Great’ C-major symphony also do).   It is a supreme test for any string quartet.

It is often difficult to find just the right tempo to propel this work’s opening movement over its full length, but the Brentano succeeded, fusing its almost-orchestral fortissimo outbursts and its quiet, tender tremolandos with a sustained concentration.  There was structural awareness but also intimacy and feeling.  This carried over to the slow tread of the second movement too, illuminated not least by the imaginative lyrical phrasing of cellist, Nina Lee.  But the streak had to end!  The following Scherzo hinted at the dry efficiency of the earlier Brentano, and this showed up in parts of the finale too.  Fortunately, the group regained its involvement towards the close, bringing the work to a satisfying culmination.  A long journey completed!

This was a fine concert and, with a little work on the Schubert, I do think that all these performances are distinctive enough to be recorded.  While the ensemble did release Haydn’s Op. 71 quartets a decade ago, I think the Op. 77, no. 2 played at this concert is a pretty unique and advanced expression of their talents. So let’s hope that the ‘new’ Brentano now go to the recording studio more often.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010