The Brentano String Quartet: Absorbing and Impassioned

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bartók and Brahms: Brentano String Quartet [Mark Steinberg & Serena Canon (violins), Misha Amory (viola), Nina Lee (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 7.1.2015 (CS)

Mozart: String Quartet in Bb K.458 (‘Hunt’)
Bartók: String Quartet No.3
Brahms: String Quartet in Bb Op.67

The exuberance of the hunt and the dance framed a more probing folk rhetoric in this absorbing and impassioned concert by the Brentano String Quartet at the Wigmore Hall.

The leaping strains of the Allegro vivace assai which opens Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet – the fourth quartet in the series, written in November of 1784, which Mozart dedicated to Haydn – balanced incisiveness with grace and introduced us to the Brentano’s warm-toned timbral blend. Although the whole performance was characterised by the Quartet’s unity of voice, here the crisp articulation allowed the inner voices to speak clearly, and the motivic phrases were elegantly passed back and forth between the players. While there was impelling energy and bite, there was never coarseness: the movement’s wriggling semi-quaver motif was playful and first violinist Mark Steinberg was light-fingered in the running passagework.

Shapely accents in the Menuetto enhanced the character of the movement and gave it a stately ambience. The Adagio was richly expressive, the first violin lament developing into a beautiful dialogue with Nina Lee’s cello, while in the middle voices second violinist Serena Canin and Misha Amory on viola provided a gently pulsing accompaniment. This movement is intricate and intense, and there were a couple of moments where the ensemble slipped for an instant, but these barely registered so persuasive was the Quartet’s musicality. Propelled by the players’ wonderfully relaxed elasticity in the syncopated episodes, the final Allegro Assai skipped joyfully along to a cheerful conclusion.

The directness and simplicity of Mozart’s bucolic quartet was followed by the altogether more testing and penetrating realms of Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet. Composed in 1927, the Third Quartet represents the highpoint of Bartók’s experimentations with timbre and form, as the composer sought to push the expressive range of the string quartet to its furthest extremes, challenging the boundaries of instrumental sound colour.

The four sections, arranged slow-fast-slow-fast, are played continuously. In the Prima parte: Moderato, the brief motivic snatches accumulated, creating an exploratory ambience. But, while the texture was fragmentary, the overall effect was never disorientating; for Bartók’s construction is meticulously planned, and the Brentano Quartet made the imitative dialogues and contrapuntal structure clearly audible, binding the motives into a continuous argument. The central ‘night music’ episode was eerie, the sul ponticelli and pizzicato effects creating a glacial patina, before being displaced by crunching, statuesque chords. A centre of gravity was established by passages such as Amory’s rich and robust canon with the first violin, and by the more lyrical melody – which evolves gradually from the initial fragments – for second violin and viola, in octaves, before a seemingly spontaneous transition to the scherzo-like Seconda parte: Allegro.

Here the Brentano Quartet used the ever-changing time signatures and complex metrical juxtapositions and superimpositions to generate a striking kinetic tension which was further energised by the challenging harmonic discourse. The instrumentalists were alert to every detail of Bartók’s kaleidoscopic colouristic canvas and exploited the extreme dynamic contrasts to great effect. Features such as the whirling trills and shrieking glissandi were never merely textural fancies, instead suggesting the wild abandon of a peasant dance. After the short, developed reprise of the opening Moderato material, the Coda revived the dynamic urgency and the material raced to an exciting, bracing conclusion.
After such dense complexity, the jovial dance which opens the Vivace of Brahms’s Third Quartet in Bb Op.67 brought freshness and light to the Hall, the opening melody perhaps possibly indicative of Romantic precursors of Bartók’s vigorous snatches of song and dance. There was a lovely sense of ease and blitheness, perhaps embodying the happiness of the composer’s sojourn at Ziegelhausen, near Heidelberg, in the summer of 1875 when the quartet was composed. But, Brahms can match the Hungarian composer for adventurousness with metre and rhythm, and the juxtapositions of lilting triple-time and polka-like duple-time, particularly in the first movement coda, were skilfully negotiated by the Brentano.

The two middle movements were wonderfully expressive. The Andante was deeply resonant, but while Steinberg’s melody sang elegantly he did not always manage to rise with sufficient stature above the thick accompanying textures. Amory’s focused viola melody confidently led the Agitato (Allegretto non troppo), shaped with stylishness and character above his muted partners at the start, and amid the arpeggiac motifs of the other three voices in the Trio.

The Poco Allegretto con Variazioni re-established the rustic mood of the opening. Again Amory was able to shine, elaborating the theme over his colleagues’ sweet-toned pizzicato accompaniment; and particularly notable were the pianissimo octave duet for violin and cello in the fourth variation, spaced widely apart, and the swinging fluency of the syncopated episodes. There was a natural ease as the variations evolved, and previously heard melodies were recalled and reprised. The Brentano Quartet’s pleasure in the music and music-making was evident, aurally and visually, and it was shared by the appreciative audience.

Claire Seymour

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