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Brentano's Late Style

Brentano String Quartet -- (L to R) Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin, Misha Amory, Nina Lee (photo by Christian Steiner)
Ever since Prof. Willem Wander van Nieuwkerk’s Conservatorium van Amsterdam course on programming, the last of my academic career, I have yearned to experience programs with a point. Thursday’s compelling program by the Brentano String Quartet at the Clarice Smith Center, entitled Late Style, threads together “works that often sum up, transcend, or otherwise branch out and explore,” as first violinist Mark Steinberg wrote in the program notes. Alex Ross points out in his review of the Brentano program (End Notes, May 5) in The New Yorker that composers have “careers that can be plotted as steadily rising curves.” The Brentano demonstrated this trend with a program of late works by Mozart, Carter, Bach, and Bartók.

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.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Brentano String Quartet (Washington Post, May 3)

Allan Kozinn, Late Works, From Composers 34 to 89 (New York Times, March 1)
The versatile pianist Thomas Sauer joined the Brentano in the cacophony of the work described by Carter as “one movement of many changing characters and contrasts.” Never stuck in the notes, Sauer and the Brentano’s lack of technical struggle in this vicious work allowed the audience to fully engage without becoming stressed out by the musical challenges. Steinberg often conducted beat patterns with the end of his violin, which reinforced the strong internal tempo seen and felt by the ensemble.

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).

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