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Brentano excellently displays Beethoven

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Brentano String Quartet
  • Brentano String Quartet

The string quartet--two violins, one viola and one cello--reached its apex in the Classical era (1750-1828) when Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert explored the genre big time. Haydn actually developed the form, evolving it from the Baroque trio sonata, of which Bach gave us many examples. After Schubert's death, the Romantics dabbled in the genre, often producing far fewer of them than they did symphonies, the quartet's large-ensemble counterpart--leaving a few popular ones here and there.

Today the string quartet is most synonymous with Beethoven, who had transformed them, at the end of his life, into what I think to be the most beautiful, most profound music ever written. On Wednesday, the Brentano Quartet, making its second appearance under Ensemble auspices, gave us masterful readings of two Beethoven quartets: his No. 2 in G, Op. 18 No. 2 and his No. 10 in E-flat ("Harp"), Op. 74. They represent respectively the "early" and "middle" period of his composing style.

Their program began with a selection of four English Baroque composer Henry Purcell's (1659-1695) Fantasias written for a viol consort and recast for string quartet. Each of our players--violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee--blended the wistful, sometimes dissonant writing of these little gems to near perfection. Their nearly vibratoless bowing worked well in this melding of modal and tonal intervals (soon to give way to all tonal).

Beethoven's Op. 18 No. 2 is actually his third quartet; No. 3 in D was his first and No. 1 in F was his second (publishing order rules the day). Though No. 3 surprisingly is the most masterful, most Mozartian of his six Op. 18s--all written pre-1800, Beethoven found his own quartet voice in No. 1, but it was slightly immature -- as was his succeeding four early ones. No. 2 is light-and-tripping, a pleasant four movements quite easy to listen to, but lacking the profundity of the later ones.

Such as the "Harp" Quartet of Op. 74, coming from 1809, the appellation (by a publisher) coming from a variety of plucked strings throughout the first movement. Though cast in E-flat--the same as Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto from the same year--the quartet's Scherzo movement is a rapid "furioso" in C minor aping at high speed the "fate" motive of the composer's Fifth Symphony (recently played by the ISO).

The Brentano players (named after Antonie Brentano--speculatively Beethoven's "immortal beloved" from a well known love letter coming down to us) played as well or better than most groups Ensemble Music has brought us recently. Perfect balance, perfect intonation and well controlled bowing are some of the hallmarks of these players. I should add that they provided the music--mainly Beethoven's Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131-- for the independently produced film A Late Quartet, the first feature I can recall which explored the lives and relatonships of long-existing string quartet members. April 10; Indiana History Center

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