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Brentano Quartet’s three tough piecesBY: Tom Purdom 02.21.2012
The Brentano Quartet programmed three challenging pieces, in the process reminding the audience that artists deal with their inner conflicts not by resolving them, but by portraying them.
Brentano Quartet: Haydn, String Quartet in D Minor; Ginastera, Piano Quintet; Beethoven, String Quartet in B-flat Major. Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello; Ignat Solzhenitsyn, piano. February 19, 2012 at Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 569-8080 or www.pcmsconcerts.org.
The audience deserves a hand, tooTOM PURDOM
The Brentano Quartet musicians chose three pieces that present most listeners with serious challenges when they assembled the program for their recent Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert. They made no attempt to please casual listeners shopping for “easy listening” favorites. Yet their concert attracted a sellout crowd, and all three items on the program evoked thunderous applause.
To be sure, the Brentanos opened with a Haydn— but not one of the good-natured Haydn quartets they could have used for a warm up. Instead, they opted for the two-movement fragment Haydn wrote near the end of his life. Haydn’s final contribution to the quartet literature includes touches of his trademark amiability, but it’s basically a subdued, somber piece.
Haydn apologized for his inability to complete the quartet by adding a line from one of his chorales to the score: “Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I.” The Brentanos rounded out the two movements by playing a string quartet version of the chorale and created a touching, elegiac tribute to a composer who has been charming audiences for more than 200 years.
The program’s biggest challenge was Alberto Ginastera’s 1963 piano quintet. As the guest pianist, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, noted in an amusing, exceptionally informative prefatory talk, this isn’t one of the five piano quintets we all love and happily hear as often as anyone wants to schedule them.
Ginastera gave his quintet a unique structure. Its four primary movements conform to the standard pattern of introduction/scherzo/slow movement/finale. But Ginastera added three cadenza movements. A cadenza for violin and cello follows the first movement; the two violins strut their stuff after the second; and the pianist solos after the third.
Ginastera also employed an arsenal of musical techniques, including Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and a classical strict canon. The second movement showcases virtuoso string techniques, such as bowing with the wood.
Solzhenitsyn managed to cover all this in his short talk, but he omitted one of the quintet’s biggest strengths: Its individual sections are very short. The first movement is so intensely dramatic that it would be unbearable if it lasted longer than its allotted two or three minutes.
In spite of all its experimentation with musical techniques, the quintet is an emotional work that would hold your attention even if you didn’t know the difference between a canon and an artillery piece. The scherzo is a true smiler, with exchanges between the instruments that sound like the musicians are having a good time making fun of the whole enterprise. The finale ends the quintet with massive crashes that generate all the last-minute excitement an audience could demand.
Beethoven’s late quartets are generally regarded as the Himalayas of the quartet literature. Critics often see them as massive peaks you should approach only after years of preparation spent listening to lesser works. (In the last few years, I’ve found that they speak to me more than works that are supposed to be more “accessible.”)
I agree with Victoria Skelly’s recent statement that we shouldn’t treat paintings as if they were novels. You can say the same thing about musical compositions. But the late quartets are an exception. I can’t listen to Opus 130 without feeling that the tensions and conflicts in the music portray the conflicts in Beethoven’s mind, in the same way the characters in a novel can represent the conflicts in the author’s personality.
The tensions in the music are never resolved, just as they’re never fully resolved in most people’s lives. Artists don’t deal with their inner conflicts by resolving them. They portray them, and the act of portrayal gives them all the peace they need.
In Opus 130, the major exception to this portrait of eternal conflict is the cavatina just before the finale. Beethoven said he couldn’t think of this beautiful, elegiac movement without tears. I’m not the only listener who shares his feelings.
Some of my friends say the quartet makes them feel like they’re peering directly into Beethoven’s mind. Obviously I can’t testify that everyone else in the audience heard it the way I did. I do know that they gave this supposedly difficult work the same kind of applause they had bestowed on the other two pieces. They had just heard a supreme work performed by musicians who had explored its significance and mastered its technical difficulties, and they had received it the way the composer hoped it would be received.
It’s said that you can’t have great art without great audiences. The crowd assembled at the Perelman Theater gave five musicians and three composers an audience worthy of their efforts.
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