As part of its residency at Princeton University, the Brentano String Quartet presents a public concert each semester. This semester’s performance paired light and airy music with the beautiful early spring day which the audience at Richardson Auditorium seemed only too happy to give up in favor of music on Sunday afternoon. The Brentano String Quartet, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee, performed standard chamber music of Haydn and Brahms, as well as an appealing piano quintet of a unique American composer.
Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major proved to be a sprightly and crisp way to open the program and warm up to the contemporary work which followed. The four-movement Haydn quartet was subtitled “The Joke,” and the members of the Brentano uniformly teased the audience with delayed cadences and playful dialogs among instrumentalists. In spite of the musical humor, the Brentano still provided the required precision and exacting communication, with even trills between the violins and clean interplay so that all players ended up in the same place at the same time. The Trio of the second movement maintained a sense of elegance within its hurdy-gurdy style, and an especially silky duet between cello and viola marked the third movement. The Brentano Quartet effectively closed the work with mischief and humor, teasing the audience into wondering whether or not the piece was really over.
The Brentano Quartet took the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to add to the ensemble’s discography by recording one of the pieces on the program in live performance. Tobias Picker’s Piano Quintet: Live Oaks was a piece with which the Brentano seemed very comfortable, and one which the quartet obviously felt fit in well with the Richardson acoustics. Joining the Brentano in the performance of this work was pianist Sara Rothenberg, who as director of Da Camera of Houston initially commissioned Live Oaks from Mr. Picker.
Ms. Rothenberg showed herself to be a clean and dynamic pianist, providing sharp and crisp octaves contrasting with languid jazz melodies. All of the pieces of this work needed to fit together precisely, and the timing between strings and piano was exact as Ms. Rothenberg exploited the full range of the keyboard. Shimmering upper violins contrasted to the lyrical and jazzlike piano lines, as the players built the intensity to such a point that one could easily imagine this music being a film score. Uniform directional crescendos provided variety in music which could have been pounding at its loudest, and the piece resorted frequently to a languid and relaxed style as the players brought the work to a close in glorious fashion.
Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 showed elements of grace of a different sort, with Viennese polish and joyfulness. In the opening movement the lower strings played certain passages with poignancy and hope, as concertmaster Mr. Steinberg provided a fervent melody. Ms. Lee took the lead with the cello in the second movement with driving melodic material, contrasted with a solidly supporting second violin and viola. The players approached the third movement portraying the icy Austrian winter, contrasted with a fiery gypsy closing Finale.
The Brentano String Quartet has been in residence at Princeton University since 1999, and seems well at home both on the concert stage and in the department of music. String players on campus and audience members from the community can consider themselves lucky that the Brentano is so accessible in performances and in workshops, often at no charge. This is a musical benefit in the community which no one should take for granted and certainly should enjoy.