Rarely Played Busoni Quartet Makes Its Carnegie Hall Premiere

United StatesUnited States  Busoni, Beethoven: Brentano String Quartet, Mark Steinberg (violin), Serena Canin (violin), Misha Amory (Viola), Nina Maria Lee (Cello), Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 19.4.2012 (SSM)

Busoni: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26
Beethoven: String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge, Op.133

Busoni’s Quartet No. 2 was written in 1887, somewhere between Brahms’ and Dvořák’s early quartets; and Schoenberg’s and the late Dvořák quartets. I had never heard the work before, and my initial impression was that it was derivative: part Bach, part Beethoven and part Brahms. The fact that it had never been performed at Carnegie Hall in its 120-year existence seemed to be an implicit judgment of its worth. However, there was no question about the Brentano Quartet’s commitment to the piece, and they played with prestigious technique and boundless energy.

But I had a nagging feeling that I was rushing my opinion of the work. With the score in hand I listened to the handful of available recordings, and not only did I begin to see the work’s attractiveness, but also how stellar the Brentano’s interpretation was. Sensitive to the score’s shifting phrasing and its off-beat, occasionally syncopated progressions, the Brentano deftly handled the complex manner in which the themes (motifs, really) are developed. The fughettos come and go naturally without seeming artificial or contrived. The second movement uses as its main theme a drone-like cello line with the first violin soaring that is quite charming. The third movement is a scherzo with a brief middle trio and a return to the opening theme, and the final movement, filled with quick changes in tempo, uses counterpoint in several fugal segments. Although this work is no undiscovered masterpiece, it holds its own as a not easily classifiable composition by a composer who himself might be considered unclassifiable.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op.130 presents a choice of two final movements: the Grosse Fuge or a more traditional Rondo. Conservatives hear in the Grosse Fuge the music of the past, dismissing the dissonant modern parts; lovers of modern music hear it as if it were written in the 20th century. The piece is just as likely to be performed by the Arditti Quartet as the Juilliard Quartet, and each ensemble claims the work as their own.

I reviewed elsewhere a performance of the Op.130 and Grosse Fuge which was played traditionally and which left me awestruck. The Brentano’s approach was to push the work into the 21st century, avoiding the emotional impact that makes the music come alive. The movement marked Alla danza tedesca did not have the pulse that should have made it seem danceable. The Cavatina lacked warmth until the coda, when the attempt to be poignant seemed overindulgent.

Nowhere in the score is there a marking for playing the strings with spicatto, yet this was how most of the fortes were played. The Grosse Fuge sounds modern enough without the sawing and slashing of the strings to prove its raw modernity. The performance of the work should carry you away with its intensity and fire rather than leaving you cold. I am certainly not looking for the overly romantic interpretations by quartets of the early 20th century such as the Budapest or Bush quartets, but we have been though a period of researching performances as they were practiced in the composer’s lifetime. The resultant knowledge should lead us to interpretations more in the spirit of what the composer was hoping to accomplish.

Nevertheless, this particular reading of the score was well appreciated by the audience. The Brentano’s vision is certainly a valid one, and their playing was immaculate on every level.

Stan Metzger