Innovative, impressive concert by Brentano Quartet

Chamber Music New Zealand

Renaissance pieces by Byrd and Gibbons (arranged for string quartet by Mark Steinberg): Haydn: String Quartet in D minor Op.103; Haydn: Chorale, Der Greis, Hob. XXVc:5 (arranged for string quartet by Mark Steinberg); Hartke: Night Songs for a Desert Flower; Beethoven: String Quartet no.15 in A minor Op. 132

Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins, Misha Amory, viola, Nina Lee, cello)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday, 12 June 2011, 5.00pm

The first surprise in this concert was that the quartet was to play arrangements of works for voices by Byrd and Gibbons. Never fear, this was no romantic send-up; the musicians played their instruments as if they were viols. The lack of vibrato and the method of bowing made them sound like authentic instruments of the composers’ time. As Mark Steinberg’s programme note pointed out, playing from a chest of viols was a pastime indulged in by Elizabethan friends, and vocal music must have often been played in this way in private homes.

The simpler, more austere plainchant-based Byrd works contrasted with the freer, inventive Fantasias of Gibbons. Their more active, dance-like quality was most enjoyable. It was delightful to hear these works in a ‘regular’ concert. They were tuneful, sprightly and thoughtful by turns.

An interesting facet was that Steinberg held his violin more like the usual way a treble viol is held, throughout the concert – but he gets a wondrous sound, in no way restricted or less than full.

The quartet as a whole makes a splendid sound. A quote form a review in 2010: “Their tones match perfectly, and they play seamlessly – handing off melodies to one another so that you can’t tell where one instrument stops and the next starts. They play as if listening to one heartbeat.” The most distinctive sound in the group was the viola, played by Misha Amory. His rich, bewitching sound had character and depth.

‘Der Greis’ (the old man), is a song that Haydn wrote late in his life. At the informative pre-concert talk by Kate Mead of Radio New Zealand Concert, we were told (also in the programme notes) that Haydn had recently had a line of the song printed on his visiting cards, saying that he was old and weak. The lines of the text were also printed at the end of the second movement of the Op. 103 quartet, hence their inclusion in tonight’s printed programme. Another symptom of his age was that he could not manage to write the more demanding first and last movements of the quartet, but we can feel very glad that he sent the two completed movements to his publisher, for they are inventive, and full of interesting and enjoyable music.

The slow movement of this quartet could be a Renaissance mass, played on the viola, while the menuetto featured agreeable contrasts, and both were played with gorgeous tone. The slow chorale that followed was magically still and quiet, with little decoration; instead it was spare and peaceful.

However, this is not the sombre music of an old man; it is mainly fresh and cheerful, like so much of Haydn’s music. These players found the essence of Haydn – robust and delicate by turns, with no nuance missed. Vibrato was used subtly. This was the complete ensemble, in every sense. It was a wonderfully satisfying performance of a thoroughly satisfying work of musical genius.

Hartke’s music is somewhat Messiaen-like. It is harmonically interesting and adventurous throughout, but always musical. While undoubtedly contemporary music, the piece was very accessible. It began with a very attractive high-pitched opening with flowing, intertwining lines. Indeed, much of the work was in the higher register for all the instruments.

The first movement, Madrigal (allegretto grazioso ed amoroso) used harmonics, first on the second violin contrasting with the low tones of the viola and cello. Later, there were harmonics on the viola, which had a wonderfully sweet tone, and on the other instruments. Here, as elsewhere, there was much sensitive playing.

The second movement was titled ‘Lament (mesto)’. The latter word means sad, sorrowful, dejected. It was a lament all right, beautifully played.

Next was ‘Intermezzo (lontano, dolcissimo)’ Lontano means distant, remote, as indeed desert flowers are for most of us. It began with a sublime cello solo. Nina Lee produced a lovely sound from her cello, not a deep and throaty sound, but one which blended beautifully with the other instruments.

Finally, there was ‘Réjouissance (allegro vivace)’, French for rejoicing. This was a technically demanding movement, with much use of ponticello (playing near the bridge) and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow – for which the musicians provided themselves with their second-best bows). These were not techniques for their own sake, but were part of the joyous dance that comprised most of the movement.

Despite the titles, the work was not excessively emotional in character, but delightfully attractive.

Beethoven’s late quartets are probably the mightiest in the whole chamber music repertoire. One of the first things I noticed was that the Brentano String Quartet are not afraid of pianissimo. The solemn opening of the first movement demonstrated their sensitive playing and their perfect ensemble. The viola particularly had a beautifully rich, intense sound in solo passages. But obviously all four are in great accord.

The second movement was played with clarity and distinction.

In the third movement, molto adagio, the music had reverential intensity – a quiet, still and slow chorale, austere yet rich, spare and ascetic yet monumental. There was little vibrato to relieve the direct message of this music in the Lydian mode, which made its long-drawn-out music harmonically interesting. Some phrases were almost sweet agony. It was sparingly impassioned; the players let the music speak for itself.

Despite the comparative brevity of the fourth movement march, there was a lot of contrast packed into it. A solo passage for violin was very impressive, revealing a very warm tone from Mark Steinberg.

The allegro appassionato finale was played with-energy plus, to make an exhilarating end to this marvellous work.

One does not always want an encore after something as magnificent as the Beethoven quartet, but on the other hand, the audience was eager not to let the musicians go. They gave us a Dvořák waltz, Op. 54, which was charming and lively.

We revelled in an impressive and satisfying concert.

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