A capacity crowd, with chairs added in front and on the stage, packed the A.J. Fletcher recital Hall at ECU on September 24 for a concert by the Brentano Quartet. The audience was richly rewarded. Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Maria Lee have played together for some twelve years, won numerous awards, and received considerable accolades wherever they have played - across America and around the world. They have achieved a blend of sound and developed a quality of musicianship that are well worth making an effort to hear. The Quartet, which is in residence at Princeton, is named after Antonie Brentano, whom some scholars believe to have been Beethoven's mysterious "Immortal Beloved" and to whom he wrote his famous love confession. The quartet's performances are characterized by physical energy - at times they seem about to break into dance. The musicians' vigorous body movements are clearly one means of communication and part of their admirably tight ensemble.
The program opener was a transcription for string quartet of Five Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo was a late-sixteenth/early-seventeenth century Italian Prince and Count, independently wealthy and thus beholden to neither court, patron, nor public. He is remembered for the murder he arranged of his unfaithful wife and her lover. His music is characterized by innovation and use of chromaticism and unique harmonic progressions that few others of his age or later could afford to employ. His madrigals and sacred motets contain some strikingly beautiful and emotionally wrenching passages. Composer Bruce Adolphe opted for fairly straightforward transcriptions in arranging these pieces for the Brentano Quartet. The performance was technically superb, with the instruments blending, weaving, and singing the vocal phrases of the five madrigals in a wondrous array of colors and textures. The instrumentalists did their best to express the emotional anguish, despair, and longing typical of madrigal excesses of this period. Striking an almost modern tone, the piece was most interesting, yet the players did not seem entirely at home with it. I found myself wishing for the music to take off and fly a bit (as Stravinsky did in his Monumentum pro Gesualdo ), but it never quite got off the ground.
The second piece on the program did fly. Mozart's String Quintet in C, K.515, soared from the opening movement duet, a dialogue between first violin and cello with the second violin and viola supporting. For this performance the Brentano Quartet was joined by the very capable violist Ara Gregorian, a member of the violin faculty at East Carolina University and the founder and director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival. Mozart wrote this quintet while he was also in the process of completing Don Giovanni , and there are some elements of opera in the work. The performing musicians took full advantage of this, bowing the aria-like passages like divas in the spotlight. All was in control, light and elegant. In other words, it was Mozart .
After the intermission, the Brentanos delivered a pleasure of significant proportion, and I do mean they delivered. Their performance of Beethoven's noble Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, was extraordinary in its controlled ardor and passion. One of the late quartets, it contains some of the most complex, intricate, and well thought out musical development of the master's total output. The composition of this score was interrupted by one of the frequent bouts of illness that plagued Beethoven. When his strength returned, he reworked what had been written before - after penning an extra movement, placed as the third and he titled "A song of thanksgiving, in the Lydian mode, offered to the Divinity by a convalescent." It is the stuff of otherworldly tranquility and ephemeral beauty through which he communicates to all humanity, and it brought tears to my eyes.
It is always tempting to view the late works, especially the quartets, as a kind of private diary or personal testament of the mind and heart of the great composer. It was my fantasy, as I listened to this stunning performance, to see shadows at the back of the stage - the composer sitting at his desk, the bright morning sun warming the room and his spirits now that his fever had broken and the weight of illness had been lifted from him. I imagined he wrote a phrase, worked out its development to his satisfaction, then lifted his head and with eyes closed heard it as it was played at the front of the stage. I don't recall ever seeing a portrait or a bust of Beethoven smiling, but I swear I saw him smiling this night.