Brentano String Quartet -- (L to R) Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin, Misha Amory, Nina Lee (photo by Christian Steiner)
Composed in the year before Mozart died, the Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 589, featured the Brentano’s comfortable, virtuosic playing and fluent tempos that were neither fast nor slow, but always just right. Their ease as an ensemble was further reinforced in that the group uniformly interpreted the work’s figures, or shapes, instead of playing endless strings of notes. This allowed the sharp accents in the third movement (Menuetto) to puncture through the texture; though Steinberg generally had the edgy tendency to veer toward the high side of the pitch. Given his untimely death, it is questionable that this work, or any of Mozart, especially compared to the likes of Brahms’s op. 122, may be considered “late” according to Steinberg’s construction.
On the other hand, Elliott Carter’s 1997 Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, commissioned by the Library of Congress for his 90th birthday, allowed the audience to experience the outcome of a true “steadily rising curve.” Indeed, one assumes that Carter’s curve has continued to rise in the past decade -- the premiere of Interventions, for piano and orchestra, is scheduled for December of this year by Barenboim, Levine, and the Boston Symphony.
Daniel Ginsberg, Brentano String Quartet (Washington Post, May 3)
Allan Kozinn, Late Works, From Composers 34 to 89 (New York Times, March 1)
Contrapunctus XIV, the last pages from Bach’s incomplete Art of Fugue featured a nice moderate dynamic, though it was overall too linear, polite, and ungrounded rhythmically, thus preventing the counterpoint from sparkling. One also wonders why the Brentano brought such a sad humor to the work; a more confident, masterful approach with proud subject entrances would have been stronger, thus leaving the sadness for the grave silence after measure 239, where the music ceases mid-phrase. It was also somewhat obscure not to include a fugue containing the basic Art of Fugue subject in its original form, which would have given the audience better bearings. The program ended with Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6, a wandering work that is at times introverted, extroverted and folksy at others, yet always embodying a conflicted loneliness.
For another chance to hear Elliott Carter's Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, there is the concert by the Pacifica Quartet at the Library of Congress later this month (May 29, 8 pm).