String Quartet in E flat, Op.127
String Quartet in F, Op.18/1
String Quartet in C, Op.59/3 (Razumovsky)
Brentano String Quartet [Mark Steinberg & Serena Canin (violins), Misha Amory (viola) & Nina Lee (cello)]
Reviewed by: Violet Bergen
Reviewed: 5 February, 2010
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Beethoven’s string quartets were performed in the order prescribed by the “Slee cycle”, Frederick Slee having granted the funding for the performance of the composer’s complete quartets in a specific order, and by different ensembles. This concert, the first of six, featured one quartet from each of Beethoven’s temporal periods.
The initial offering was the first from Beethoven’s ‘late’ period, when Beethoven went into uncharted musical territory. Beethoven’s audience was not ready for these intellectually complex works, and for the most part his listeners rendered this music incomprehensible.
Opus 127 was an inspired choice to begin the Slee cycle, with its majestic chordal opening. The Brentano Quartet opted to start the multi-stopped chords with no vibrato, gradually adding it as the sound swelled. The effect was of a 16-string instrument, perfectly in tune. Mark Steinberg displayed superb bow control in the second movement, using full strokes yet remaining light in the pianissimo accompaniment lines, and always with sweetness of tone. The other instruments had a rich, warm sound, with each musician playing as if his part was the most crucial, yet always fitting into a unified whole. The hymn-like adagio of the third variation featured a unified, lush sound, and when the first violin broke away with its delicate line in the subsequent variation, it felt like a breath of fresh air.
After an excessively long pause to allow latecomers to be seated, the performers were finally able to continue with the scherzo; the sudden accents were forceful and ringing yet never harsh. Steinberg had a habit of raising his leg high and stamping the floor in the galloping fortissimo sections, yet this gesture only added energy to his playing and did not distract. The unusual harmonic changes of the finale highlighted the complexity of the work. In the fortissimo double stops, the Brentano achieved notable largeness of sound, its members creating an alien musical universe, marching towards distant, unexplored harmonic lands, the performers completely submerged in the extraordinary atmosphere they created.
The recital continued with Opus 18/Number 1, in fact the second quartet Beethoven composed, yet placed first in the Opus 18 set due to its dramatic nature. The performers managed to make the first movement’s rhythmic motif subtly different each time; the drive never lost momentum. In the development section, Misha Amory created a haunting, hollow tone that sounded like an instrument completely different to a viola.
Beethoven confided in a friend that the second movement was inspired by the burial scene from “Romeo and Juliet”. The Brentano gave a suitably theatrical performance, with the sudden fortissimo scales in the middle voices sounding quite violent. Steinberg confirmed his role as an extraordinarily sensitive leader; his playing was never gratuitously showy, and in the higher, faster sections in which the first violin has the main melodic role he underplayed the dynamic, thus creating the neat trick of remaining audible yet allowing the listener’s ear to be attuned to the harmonic changes of the accompanying lines. The suspenseful drama of this movement was the highlight of the concert; one could sense the collective exhale of the audience at the end. The players took brisk tempos in the final two movements. They had just the right amount of emphasis on their accents in the scherzo, the movement retaining lightness. Steinberg’s fast runs in the trio section were precise, yet again he kept the dynamic low to highlight the pulse and harmony.
The third ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet begins with a nod to Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet. The Brentano created a frighteningly suspenseful mood with the unexpected resolutions. Steinberg used an exceptionally slow vibrato in the highest register yet still maintained a beautiful, warm tone. In the main allegro the mood turned joyous. The performers changed their entire dynamic range in the repetition of the exposition, which they did not merely play softer but also highlighted the dynamic contrasts of which these musicians seem to have an infinite range. Nina Lee created a different timbre for each pizzicato in the opening of the second movement, which moved along like an organic creature propelled by the top three voices blending as one. Such warm, blended sound continued in the opening of the Minuet, Steinberg’s tone, usually of a sweet nature, changed dramatically in the arpeggios in the trio section, becoming bright in order to highlight the key change. The musicians took the finale at lightning speed, Steinberg managing great expressive difference, and even seeming calm and relaxed despite the complexity and rapid pace of the line. The virtuosic coda confirmed the inspired choice of the Brentano Quartet to open the first concert of the Slee cycle.