Chronicle Review: Brentano Quartet

The celebrated quartet achieves not mere proficiency but greatness in its performance at the 2010 Austin Chamber Music Festival

Bates Recital Hall, July 18

The Austin Chronicle

brentanosq3 09 After hearing this tremendous Sunday evening concert, my mind kept floating back to the question of greatness. What are its qualities? What differentiates a first-rate performance from a great one? Lest I ramble, though, I’ll get to the performance in question, smack in the middle of the 2010 Austin Chamber Music Festival and the result of years of recruitment: the Brentano String Quartet.

The ensemble concluded its first-ever appearance at the festival with the sprawling Beethoven Quartet in E-flat major, the first of the composer’s late quartets marked by the master’s complete deafness. To be honest, the late quartets aren’t my favorite – I like my Beethoven stormy and hot-headed, bursting with tension, and the late works are more balanced, majestic, or in Artistic Director Michelle Schumann’s own words, “transcendent.” My personal bias aside, the performance was everything you’d hope it to be. Grand and full of vigor, the four musicians were sumptuously attuned to one another throughout. The exciting scherzo third movement was a highlight, with its bursts of sound that bounced up the hall’s steep aisles.

Prior to intermission, the audience was treated to the Austin premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Night Songs for a Desert Flower, composed for the quartet in 2009. Inspired by the medieval madrigal form but by all means modern, the piece was an intriguing departure from traditional form. Hartke’s organic, ethereal style captured the other-worldliness of his title, and with it the Brentano created a hushed and vulnerable soundscape. The undulating first movement introduced the material that wove itself throughout the quartet, utilizing oscillating open harmonics in the inner voices. The result was an alien sonority that provoked much discussion at intermission. Among the comparisons I overheard were the whistles of distant approaching trains, and my favorite, the razor-sharp sounds of wet fingers against the rims of crystal glassware. The conclusions of Hartke’s movements were particularly memorable, as they didn’t as much end but seemed to just slip away. Following the longing “Lament” and the anxious “Intermezzo,” the piece shifted gears for the final “Rejouissance” movement, giving the quartet energetic, sweeping material. Much credit is due violinist Serena Canin and violist Misha Amory for sustaining the harmonics material throughout with tremendous consistency and control.

That brings us to the night’s opener, Haydn’s optimistic, lighthearted Quartet in F major. Reminiscent of the genteel nature of the late classical period, the piece was lovely and perfectly executed. From exciting big moments to its gorgeous quiet material, the members of the Brentano String Quartet nailed the entire thing. You could envision this performance was what Haydn imagined as he wrote it. It’s what originally brought the question of greatness to my mind.

Emerson said “to be simple is to be great.” No doubt the Brentano String Quartet came to Austin with a distinguished 19-year résumé: artists-in-residence at Princeton University, the original winners of the Cleveland Quartet Award, lauded tours to the world’s sanctuaries of classical music. So, yes, the reputation that preceded their visit was huge. On this night, though, dressed in no-frills summer outfits and set on Bates’ stark stage, the quartet simply made exceptional, moving music. The result was, in a way that was at once intangible and certain, nothing short of great.

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