Brentano String Quartet at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, October 16, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

Jennifer Taylor invited the Brentano String Quartet to open Music Toronto’s 37th season. This energetic and vivid group chose a programme of groundbreaking works by Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn whose originality they proved in a performance style marked by melodic flow and dramatically contrasted voicings.

Haydn’s “String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3” (1772) is by Haydn’s own admission the product of a time when his isolation at Esterhazy deprived him of the influence of Vienna’s musical scene and forced him to develop ‘originality’.  In the works of Op. 20, Haydn abandons the ‘pretty and galant’ style of the 20 or so quartets he had written previously. Instead, he seriously puts forward intense expression of his passions in forms that return to the fugal style of Bach, and he creates new textures by sharing themes more equally among the instruments.

For example, Nina Lee’s rich cello plays the melody of the third movement’s reflective opening theme, the violins (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin) take the inner part and the Misha Amory’s viola holds down the bass. The feeling is intimate, almost lonely; the pacing slow with distinctly held pauses between phrases that somehow round off the corners of the musical turns and emphasize a sense of flow. There is so much drama at this point, that one hears foreshadowings of Beethoven.

The popular buzz about Haydn is that he considered himself a hardworking composer but downplayed his native originality. Mozart is known for the effortless facility of his music making, but he refers to this “Prussian” quartet in B-flat minor, K. 589 as “this troublesome task.” His graceful and happy composition masks the crushing difficulties of this period of Mozart’s life (1790) when he was struggling to attract the patronage of the cello-playing King of Prussia.

However, the brilliant melodic ideas that alternate flowing lyricism with furious rushes of novel harmonies in this composition, so evident in the first movement, also convey a profound sense of resignation and acceptance. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the opening of the second movement, the Larghetto, where the first violin sits silent while the cello states the lyrical opening theme. Steinberg then echoes that theme, introduces a passive secondary melody before merging as a distinctive strand into the tonal fabric the Bretanos weave.

The chromatic melodies in the dark trio played insistently by pairs of instruments speak of rough and difficult travels, but the movement ends cheerfully, as if with a smile. This mood is dissolved as the Finale proceeds by means of a contrapuntal logic that suggests a narrative almost comprehensible as speech, and the story ends quietly.

It has been two years since Mendelssohn’s second string quartet, the “A Minor, Op. 13” was performed at a Music Toronto concert by the Lafayette String Quartet. Their account of the 18 year old composer’s extended love song to a mysterious romantic attachment had the feeling of “West Side Story” unfolding in the Prussian court. This past summer, at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, the technical complexity inspired in Mendelssohn by the late quartets of the recently deceased Beethoven was revealed with an awesome range of colour and texture by the Leipzig String Quartet, who also brought the work to a razor’s edge of precision and balance.

The Brentano’s performance tonight was stormy and stirring, looking back to feelings Beethoven is said to have harboured for the ensemble’s namesake, his ‘immortal beloved’ Antonie Brentano. The first movement, marked ‘Adagio; Allegro vivace,’ opens darkly with a painful question that lingers and swells to a crescendo before bursting into a violent rush of passion that builds through contrapuntal, dissonant surges towards a turbulent ending.

The Adagio that follows opens pizzicato and contains a pair of violin cadenzas that stir foreshadowings of the love of women we hear in the music of Mahler and Dvorak. The Intermezzo sings delicately a folk like theme with pizzicato accompaniment that banishes the previous emotionality into a day-at-the-fair sprightly canter. The Finale is ‘Presto’, vigorous as a horserace, and ends by recalling the question Mendelssohn opened the piece with. Though it gives much pleasure to hear this piece, one can’t help noticing it sets the bar a bit lower than the Haydn and Mozart.

That said, we hope it will not be another five years before the Brentano String Quartet is invited to Music Toronto.

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