The Brentano String Quartet returned Sunday afternoon to the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music at Union College’s Memorial Chapel and showed why it's one of the best and brightest on the circuit today.
Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee performed a program that covered 300 years but no matter the styles or the demands, they had it all covered. It might be that after playing together since 1992 (1998 for Lee) they’ve had time to develop their voice or maybe it’s just their work ethic, which entails at least three hours of practice five days a week. Based on the voluminous program notes they provided, they also do their research.
Whatever the reason, they impressed with their exceptional clarity of technique, exact pitch, taut rhythms, expressivity, refined attacks, intensity of purpose, and control over a vast palette of everything from dynamics to composer intentions. Most of all, it was their sound. It was like a golden sheen that could darken or sparkle as needed.
The program was also of interest. They began with Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2 (“Joke") of 1781. Melodies were pretty and lilting, tempos had bounce and pacing and Haydn’s pranks were done with a playfulness that brought chuckles from the large crowd.
Bartok’s Quartet No. 4 (1928) was fierce and primal with dissonance, stomping rhythms, an intricate bevy of stylistic shifts among the five movements, and a few plaintive melodies. The Brentano held nothing back, even to using their second-best bows in the finale with all its harsh bowing requirements. It was a virtuosic performance of a very difficult piece and the audience gave them a standing ovation.
Arrangements of four selections from Henry Purcell’s Fantasias for viols (1680) were charming. Some were spare and sweet with interweaving smooth lines, and others were quick like fireflies flitting about. The Brentano was suitably mellow or soaring and used little vibrato to keep things fluid.
In Brahms’ Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873), the Brentano produced a rich, warm tone in the four movements with much attention to detail. The first movement’s lovely warm swaying melody provided an airy envelope around the inner section’s impassioned passages, even as the second movement’s soaring yet questing song darkened into an acceptance. As the Brentano frolicked in and out of chorale-like sections in the third movement, which became a gypsy fling in the finale, it was marvelous to hear how seamless they were. They had a real grasp of the material, a boon to the crowd.
The next concert on the series is Dec. 14 with the Boston Camerata.