Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Brentano String Quartet

with Bruce Adolphe, composer & piano
Nov. 17, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Brentano String Quartet, an American ensemble that has won widespread plaudits and punched many desirable buttons (Naumburg Award, residencies with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Princeton University) in its 20-year career, came to town twice in recent days: live, in the latest installment of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts; and on the soundtrack of the film “The Late Quartet,” for which the Brentano recorded Beethoven’s late, uniquely challenging Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131.

“The Late Quartet” (which I haven’t yet seen) is said to be Oscar material. A win certainly would raise the Brentano’s profile. Not that these musicians need to bask in reflected glory.

Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee stand up to comparison with the best quartets currently at work. Their collective sound is one of high clarity, perfect and focused pitch, animation and expressiveness without excess. Listeners of a certain age may hear echoes of the Quartetto Italiano in the Brentano’s technique and interpretive outlook.

The group’s most singular asset may be its cellist. Lee produces a warm and burnished yet crystalline tone that provides a solid, sonorous foundation for the higher strings without overbalancing them. The cello anchors an ensemble that projects strongly and evenly at all volumes, conveying weight without loudness.

It proved to be the perfect sound for the two largest works on the VCU program, Haydn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 (known as “The Joke”), and Beethoven’s Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No. 2. The Brentano got more than sound right in these performances; the foursome also captured the bumptious humor of these pieces, an elusive target for all too many quartets.

The Brentano’s treatment of Schubert’s “Quartettsatz,” the unfinished Quartet in C minor, D. 703, was less overtly passionate than I’m used to hearing. This more straight-faced approach, however, reaped dividends in clarity and instrumental balance.

The Schubert, with its fragmentary andante, was paired with “Fra(nz)g-mentation” (2010) by Bruce Adolphe, a piece that reworks the main theme of the Schubert andante in a fashion that could be called kaleidoscopic, or episodic.

The Brentano rounded out the program with four fantasias by Henry Purcell, adapted from the originals for consort of viols. Enterprising as it may be to adapt pre-violin music for modern fiddles, and impressive as it is to hear modern fiddlers play well with next-to-no vibrato, the somberly droning tone and measured paces of these pieces invited the listener to tune out before the set concluded. Two of these in one sitting may be plenty.

Adolphe, a prolific composer, doesn’t appear to be too distressed that he’s better-known as the creator of “Piano Puzzlers,” the feature on public radio’s “Performance Today” in which familiar tunes are recast in the stylistic manner of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and other greats. A pre-concert sampler of these bits of musical whimsy showed them to be not just fun, but quite well-crafted miniatures that could stand on their own without the need to play Name That Tune.