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When the Tokyo String Quartet retired from public performance, they left their positions as Artists in Residence at Yale University. They were succeeded last year by the members of the Brentano String Quartet: Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violinists; Misha Amory, violist; and Nina Lee, cellist. Curiously enough, one might consider the Brentano Quartet the "anti-Tokyo / anti-Budapest" string quartet: their style is far from the robust sonorities of these two older and famous groups. Instead, they make their musical statements in a refined, intimate style that produces many moments of exquisite music.
Their program in Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium, opening the 70th season of the Durham Chamber Arts Society under the umbrella of Duke Performances, was somewhat lightweight in content (if Bach fugues can ever be considered lightweight): three fugues from J.S. Bach's Art of Fugue, the early Quartet No. 1 in E-flat by Mendelssohn, and the Brahms Quartet No. 3 in B-flat, which Brahms himself described as a "mere trifle" which he composed while trying to avoid composing a symphony.
While seated in the normal string quartet manner, the Brentano choose non-standard seats: Steinberg and Lee sit on pianists' "artist benches," while Canin and Amory each sit on a stack of two chairs, one atop the other. If foot-tapping, head-bobbing, and/or frequent facial contortions bother anyone, s/he can always simply close eyes and listen to the serene music-making.
The three excerpts from Art of Fugue were not listed in the program, but were, I believe, the fourth, sixth, and eleventh fugues of this, Bach's last major work. The fourth fugue, which begins with the inversion of the work's original theme, began and continued gently. Bowings were generally short, vibrato minimal, in keeping with Baroque style. There was a sense of calm lyricism that is often lacking in the frequent keyboard performances of Art of Fugue because the strings lack the percussive element present in pianos and, to a lesser extent, harpsichords and organs. In all three fugues, Bach's counterpoint was clearly delineated, each instrument's phrasing melding with the others in painting beautiful contrapuntal scenes.
Bach's late work was followed by Felix Mendelssohn's Opus 12. Perhaps unconsciously channeling Beethoven's Op. 74 quartet in preceding the opening movement's Allegro with an introductory slow section, Mendelssohn continues not with a scherzo, but with a canzonetta. This movement, with its characteristically Mendelssohnian pizzicato passages, sparkled brightly in the Brentano's hands. The final Molto Allegro e vivace, which begins in the relative minor key (C minor), featured rapid unison and octave passages that were played with perfect intonation throughout, before the works surprisingly quiet conclusion.
After intermission, we heard one of Brahms' least Brahmsian works – the B-flat Quartet, Op. 67. Only traces of the composer's unique musical language are heard in the first two movements (Vivace and Andante); in none of his other instrumental pieces does Brahms append what sounds for all the world like an "Amen" as he does in the concluding measure of the second movement.
More familiar ground was reached in the third movement, Agitato (Allegretto non troppo). Here, violist Amory took the lead with a Ländler-like melody played against the other muted string voices. The powerful sonority of Amory's viola was a vivid contrast to the much less assertive sound of Steinberg's violin, which often seemed too quiet for the ensemble.
The Brentano's members play with precision and wonderful musicianship. The full house at Baldwin Auditorium expressed its appreciation with a well-deserved vigorous ovation at the concert's conclusion.