Superb Haydn and Britten from the Brentano Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Britten: Brentano String Quartet [Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin (violins), Misha Amory (viola), Nina Lee (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 7.3.2016 (CC)

Haydn             String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op. 50/4
Britten            String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94

This was a lovely coupling of quartets for a Monday lunchtime BBC concert. The Brentano Quartet is a fine ensemble. Based in America  – they have been Quartet in Residence at Yale since July 2014, after serving 14 years in that position at Princeton – the Brentano is also closely involved in the chamber music sections of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. On present showing, they absolutely live up to this fine pedigree.

Haydn’s fourth “Prussian” quartet is the only one of the set in a minor key (Haydn also cast his “Farewell” Symphony in F sharp minor). The Brentano Quartet opted for a somewhat wiry, open sound, low on vibrato, for the Haydn (in which, incidentally, they honoured the exposition repeat). This was an imaginative reading: a blaze of light ignited the development. Technically everything was impeccable – phenomenal evenness from Serena Canin’s second violin deserves especial praise. More impressive still was the tenderness and superb balance of the opening of the second movement Andante: Nina Lee’s cello underpinned the ensuing drama before a duet between her high cello and Serena Canin’s violin brought further shafts of delight. Haydn’s delicious counterpoint in the third movement was given to fine effect; the brief finale – only about two-and-a-half minutes long – is a playful Fuga, here excellent in its concentration.

Britten’s Third Quartet by was written in 1975, at the very end of the composer’s life. It acts as a kind of coda to Britten’s powerful last opera, Death in Venice – who could forget ENO’s most recent staging of that? – and utilises themes from that opera in all of its movements, particularly in the finale. The five-movement Third Quartet is one of Britten’s finest works, the musical language powerful and complex, at times even unashamedly modern. The aching mystery of its opening “Duets”, in which Britten exploits the possibilities of various pairings within the quartet medium, holds a modernity that nevertheless has palpable warmth at its heart. The glassy, gestural chords that open the ensuing “Ostinato” herald in a ghost of a dance and radiant, but subtle, harmonic arrival points. The “Solo” is actually a desolate song without words for first violin, heard in its high register against low cello; the unfilled registral space between the two instruments speaks as much of loneliness as does the melody itself. Control here from all four players was little short of miraculous: the audience, too, found held-breath silence. If Mahler’s shadow is felt in the “Burlesque” (the Mahler of the Ninth Symphony), it is the finale that is pure Britten at his very finest. Marked “Passacaglia (La Serenissima)”, it uses multiple quotation from Death in Venice. Lasting nearly ten minutes, the slow tread of the Passacaglia implies a sense of scale well above that. The music’s tendencies towards warmth are continually thwarted throughout the movement; this is surely one of Britten’s most poignant utterances, and was heard in a magnificently concentrated performance here. The desolate landscapes of the late Shostakovich Quartets were also brought strongly to mind.

The encore was apt, given both the preceding material, and also the Quartet’s recent realisation of Bach in multi-media form elsewhere: the first Fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue, beautifully done. A superb lunchtime concert.

Colin Clarke


For those with access to the BBC iPlayer the concert can be heard for thirty days from the date of transmission by clicking here

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