Brentano String Quartet at Weill Recital Hall – Fragments: Connecting Past and Present (II)

String Quartet in D minor, Op.103
John Harbison
Finale, Presto [New York premiere]
Stephen Hartke
From the Fifth Book [New York premiere]
String Quartet in E minor, K417d [fragment]
Vijay Iyer
Mozart Effects [New York premiere]
String Quartet No.1, Op.7

Brentano String Quartet [Mark Steinberg & Serena Canin (violins), Misha Amory (viola) & Nina Maria Lee (cello)]

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 21 March, 2012
Venue: Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Brentano String Quartet. Photograph: Peter SchaffThe Brentano Quartet presented the second “Fragments” program at Weill Recital Hall, emphasizing the connection between composers past and present, by juxtaposing incomplete pieces or unfinished opuses with newly commissioned works. Most aesthetically successful were two of the three new works, both bearing a profound stylistic resemblance to their corresponding fragments, yet without losing contemporary footing.

It is unclear whether Haydn’s movements were intended to be the initial or inner two of a four-movement string quartet. Haydn published them three years before his death, with an inscription from his song Der Greis (“Gone is all my strength; old and weak am I.”) Despite this supposed apology for his poor health, the composer’s powers are in full force. The Andante grazioso features longing melodies in the violins, delicate yet moving; and the forceful Minuet evokes Schubert in its drama, its chromaticism seeming to anticipate music beyond the composer’s lifetime. The Brentano members highlighted the work’s contrasting stylistic tendencies by juxtaposing romantic portamento with Baroque-inspired shunning of vibrato.

John Harbison wrote of his challenge in writing a finale that “recreates in contemporary terms Haydn’s constant dialogue between symmetry and asymmetry.” Rich in fugal writing, it maintains the feeling of Haydn while keeping the musical language current.

Shostakovich’s fragmentary Allegretto, a completed first movement of an unfinished string quartet (presumably the Ninth, which Shostakovich started again from scratch), is close in feeling to his Eighth. Bitterly incisive bow-strokes have a machine-like precision, contrasting with nostalgic melodies to create a rainbow of dark emotion. The Brentano performers did not shy away from playing with deliberate imprecision in the frantic Gypsy-influenced passages of rapid scales, while displaying masterful technique in creating a rich, dark sound with sparing use of vibrato.

Stephen Hartke wrote that “Shostakovich’s structures, while equally plainspoken and rooted in the traditions of the string quartet, have a stream-of-consciousness character that I have chosen to follow in my piece”. Hartke’s From the Fifth Book begins with a plaintive duet for viola and second violin, followed by sarcastic commentary in the first violin and the cello’s top and bottom ranges. Emotion builds to furious frenzy, breaking down into a passage of bell-like harmonics before starting anew. Hartke keeps to the same harmonic environment as Shostakovich, and though his work is satisfying, there seemed nothing gained in extending the long argument beyond the initial emotional build-up.

Vijay Iyer’s Mozart Effects alludes to the 1993 article in the journal Nature claiming that listening to Mozart produces a short-term boost in IQ. Mozart’s fragment was composed around 1789 and showcases his genius, with melancholic phrases in contrast to virtuosic passagework. The piece segues into Iyer’s work by means of a neat trick – a short phrase of Mozartean origin repeats several times before building into overlapping layers of drones. Iyer does not attempt the impossible task of mimicking Mozart, and his own style seems scattered and unserious. Repetitions have an entertaining pop aesthetic, but jumped from idea to idea without fleshing out any particular viewpoint. Birdlike oscillating harmonics were pretty but lacking in drama, leading to solos without a clear tonal center with scales redeemed from boredom only by their syncopated rhythms.

The three pairings were followed by a masterpiece – Bartók’s First String Quartet. The opening Lento shares melodic material with his Violin Concerto. In a letter to violinist Stefi Geyer, Bartók described this movement as a “funeral dirge” – perhaps as a depiction of the death of his passion for her. Sighing violin lines portray a mournful introspection, and the swelling and decaying of intensity is unrelenting, the emotional pain severe. Though the mood lightens somewhat in the Allegretto, the darkness lingers. Mark Steinberg’s harsh, strident tone contrasted with Nina Maria Lee’s richer timbre, but the mixture was pleasing. The relentless anger continues in the finale. The musicians did not hold back in their intensity, and the in-your-face rawness lost some of its power in their literal interpretation. Some scaling of dramatic weight would have made the performance much more forceful. Yet one could not quibble with the execution of the final moments, with Steinberg sawing away on his E string while the other players united in strenuously passionate unison. Clearly, suppression of emotion is not an option when dealing with unrequited love.

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