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

Charles Wuorinen
Marian Tropes [New York premiere]
Quartettsatz in C minor, D703 [plus Andante fragment]
Bruce Adolphe
Fra(nz)g-mentation [New York premiere]
The Art of Fugue, BWV1080 – Contrapunctus XVIII
Sofia Gubaidulina
Reflections on the Theme of B-A-C-H [New York premiere]
String Quartet in G minor, Op.10

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

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 16 February, 2012
Venue: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Brentano String Quartet. Photograph: Peter SchaffThe Brentano Quartet’s leader, Mark Steinberg, explained the innovative programming, for the Brentano musicians to revisit composers that are important to them, and to create a dialogue between music from the past and present. Works from bygone centuries considered to be incomplete or fragmentary were interspersed with commissioned works in order to reconnect to the idea of creation.

The concert’s ambitious first half presented three New York premieres co-commissioned by the Brentano Quartet and Carnegie Hall. Charles Wuorinen’s Marian Tropes was offered without an historical pairing, although it incorporates sections of music by the Renaissance composers Josquin and Dufay. Wuorinen wrote of choosing these selections due to their origin as orphan movements intended for larger structures. The piece shifts fluidly between the fifteenth and twenty-first centuries, with jubilant open chords and modal contrapuntal lines deconstructing into sighing glissandos that stray far from traditional tonality. The Brentano musicians were engaging and warm, shifting effortlessly between baroque articulation and modern technique. Steinberg apologetically stopped the performance after a couple of minutes, citing the need to restart, thus demonstrating the humanity of the performers as well as the composers.

The remainder of the first half was presented as two pairs of the old and the new, which Steinberg asked to be heard uninterrupted by applause. Schubert’s Quartettsatz, written near the end of the composer’s life, was intended to be the first movement of a full-scale work. It was presented with Bruce Adolphe’s Fra(nz)g-mentation, which incorporates Schubert’s sketches for the unfinished Andante movement. The performance of complete Schubert was thrillingly intense; the most familiar of works made to seem completely original, trademarked by the more than occasional use of an overly quiet dynamic in the first violin, allowing the lower voices to shine. Steinberg managed to play with unusually low volume without being submissive, and when he let loose in volume the music became furious and explosive. The incomplete Andante was brief and sweetly melodic, but not fleshed out it seemed rather dull. After an abrupt pause, we continued with the Adolphe, which is modal and contrapuntal, with non-jarring dissonance and repetitive patterns in unusual meters: inoffensive, it has more in common with Schubert’s bland sketch than with the fiery first movement.

The conclusion from J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue was more successfully paired with Sofia Gubaidulina’s Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H, although stylistically these works could not be more different. The performers played the Bach with minimal vibrato, seamlessly blending together as if an entirely new instrument. They partitioned their overall dynamic levels ranking from bottom to top, so that cellist Nina Maria Lee became the de facto leader, highlighting the work’s harmonic direction. The abrupt ending of the unfinished work led to a poignant pause, and when the music re-started it was clearly in Gubaidulina’s authentic, mesmerizing voice. Insect-like tremolo glissandos and incisive dissonance were interspersed with contrapuntal fragments that grow into ever-changing new entities. The connection between the composers was not obvious, but the metamorphosis of Gubaidulina’s melodic fragments had the aura of the preceding Bach, the performance relishing the music’s excitement and unpredictability, played with utmost drama.

The performers did not explain the inclusion of Debussy’s String Quartet in a program devoted to fragments. However, they continued their marvelous feat of bringing novel qualities to standard repertoire. They took sections of the opening Animé movement with slower than usual tempos, and forsook any opportunities to showcase virtuosity in favor of a more refined color palette, therefore making the more intense sections even more meaningful. The second movement’s ostinato passagework always seemed like part of a larger dialogue, with freshness and inspiration. Steinberg was just barely audible in parts of the hauntingly wistful Andantino. The finale’s collective energy made sudden jumps from the serene to the frantic, with Steinberg displaying his instrument’s ability to make an intensely brilliant tone when the moment suited him.

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